KLINA, Kosovo (Reuters) - Hundreds of Kosovar Albanians gather on Sundays to attend religious services in a still unfinished red-brick church in the Kosovo town of Klina.
Turning away from the majority Muslim faith imposed by the Ottoman Turks centuries ago, these worshippers are part of a revival of Catholicism in the newly independent Balkan state.
“We have been living a dual life. In our homes we were Catholics but in public we were good Muslims,” said Ismet Sopi. “We don’t call this converting. It is the continuity of the family’s belief.”
Sopi has commuted 40 km (25 miles) every Sunday from central Kosovo to Klina to attend a morning mass since he formally became a Roman Catholic five months ago. This September was the first holy month of Ramadan during which no one in his 32-member family fasted.
The majority of ethnic Albanians were forcibly converted to Islam, mostly through the imposition of high taxes on Catholics, when the Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans.
For centuries, many remembered their Christian roots and lived as what they call “Catholics in hiding”. Some, nearly a century after the Ottomans left the Balkans, now see the chance to reveal their true beliefs.
“Fifty or sixty percent of the population are linked emotionally with the Roman Catholic religion. This is because of feelings about what our ancestors believed,” said Muhamet Mala, a professor who teaches History of Religion at Pristina Public University.
Originally Christians, the Sopis’ ancestors converted to Islam centuries ago during the Ottoman Empire but the family cherished Christian customs for centuries. They colored eggs at Easter and celebrated Christmas along with Ramadan.
“Islam started spreading in big numbers across Albanian territories when the Ottomans came in the 15th century. The majority of the people embraced Islam for economic reasons,” said Jahja Drancolli, a religion professor who also teaches at Pristina Public University.
“At the time, if you were a Catholic you had to pay a lot of taxes to the Ottomans.”
Around 90 percent of Kosovo’s Albanian population is Muslim, with just four percent Roman Catholics. The country is also home to dozens of medieval Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches.
The area that is now Kosovo was conquered by Rome before the Christian era and later ruled for centuries by Christian Bulgarians and Serbs. It became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1455.
Under the Ottomans, many Catholics converted to escape the new taxes or qualify for jobs and advancement in the Muslim-ruled society.
In staunchly Catholic families, often in villages with a strong social network, men converted publicly but continued to practice Christianity at home. Women and daughters often kept the faith, meaning it was transmitted to children.
Catholic priests administered the sacraments to these “crypto-Catholics” during house visits to the women.
The Catholic Church officially opposed this ministry to the converts, but local clergy often ignored that and maintained ties to the families.
The fact that there were “Catholics in hiding” was known during the Ottoman Empire: Albanians even had a word for them, “laraman”, meaning piebald, or two-colored.
Some crypto-Catholic families began to re-emerge in public in the mid to late 19th century, when Ottoman power was waning.
Many mosques in Kosovo were destroyed during the 1998-99 war between Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army. Since 1999, when the U.N. took control of Serbia’s breakaway province, ethnic Albanian mobs destroyed many Serb Orthodox churches.
Roman Catholic churches were not destroyed, however, and most of Kosovo’s towns have a square named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Theresa, an ethnic Albanian nun born in neighboring Macedonia. She spent her life helping the poor in the Indian city of Calcutta and died in 1997.
Beatified in 2003, Mother Theresa became a heroine to many Albanian worshippers. A new cathedral, still under construction at Pristina’s Mother Theresa Square, will be the tallest building in the capital and big enough to hold 2,000 churchgoers.
“We don’t make appeals to anyone to convert. People call us,” said Don Shan Zefi, chancellor of the Church’s Kosovo diocese. “We are not talking about individuals any more. There are inhabitants from dozens of villages who have contacted us.”
Zefi said the process started decades ago, but added that today there are thousands of people who “want to become Roman Catholics again”.
The Islamic community disapproves of such converts.
The head of the Kosovo Islamic community, Mufti Naim Ternava, has opposed building a cathedral at the heart of Pristina and scoffs at new churches built across Kosovo.
“No human brain can understand how a church should be build in the middle of 13 Muslim villages,” he said.
Inhabitants of Kravoserija in the south of the country have had their own church since 2005, with the help of the Kosovo Catholic Church. Beke Bytyci is one of five villagers who has the keys to it, since chancellor Zefi only comes to celebrate mass every few weeks.
Opening the wooden door, he crossed himself: “I will be baptized next week,” he said.
More than half the 120 village families attend the ceremonies, and the small church is always full.
“My dad made a mistake in not raising me as a Christian,” said Ferat Bytyci, a 35-year-old merchant in the village and a relative of Beke. “Now things have changed and I don’t make the same mistake.”
Editing by Adam Tanner, Tom Heneghan and Keith Weir