Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Politics and Religion: The Public Relations Challenge for All Albanians

by Hon. Joseph J. DioGuardi

President, Albanian American Civic League

Where does one begin when trying to deal with such universal and
controversial issues as politics and religion? As an American, I have
been taught that you cannot mix politics and religion. Our U.S.
Constitution bears directly on this with its "establishment" clause,
which prevents our government from establishing or endorsing any
particular religion, church, or faith. This is conventionally referred
to as the Constitutional separation of church and state. Yet many
issues have arisen, even in America, where politics and religion
collide. These issues, such as abortion, gay rights, "faith-based"
initiatives (basically social welfare programs run by certain churches),
and even the presence of the Ten Commandments in governmentally owned
buildings, have polarized the U.S. electorate so much that even
presidential elections are now being won or lost by razor-thin margins.
The public mixing of church and state is abhorrent to most
Americans, and herein lies the public image challenge for the Albanian
people, who have not, until the Albanian American Civic League started
in 1989, used western-style lobbying and public relations to counteract
Serbian and Greek government and Orthodox church propaganda against them
as socalled "radical Muslims" and "KLA terrorists" tied to certain "Al
Qaeda cells" in Albania, Kosova, Macedonia, and Montenegro. All
Albanians know these are big lies being used for political reasons by
the Serbs to get back Kosova and by the Greeks to control the political
and economic outcomes in Albania and Macedonia.

But what do the American people know and believe about the Albanian
people? And, what do key countries in Western Europe
believe-especially those sitting on the UN Security Council in whose
hands lies the future of the Albanian nation of seven million people
living side by side in the Balkans, but unfairly divided before, during,
and after World War I into six different political jurisdictions to keep
Albanians subservient to Slavs and Greeks? Serbs and Greeks, in
particular, continue to wage a "holy war" against the Albanian people as
the socalled successors to the Ottoman Turks who occupied the Balkans,
including Greece and Serbia, for more than 500 years. They arrogantly
and grudgingly blame Albanians, who were all Christian until the
fifteenth century, for converting to Islam and continuing it today in
their Christian Europe.

We are, I believe, at a major turning point in the history of the
Albanian people. The key issue now is whether the political, economic,
and social life for all Albanians in the Balkans will get better or
worse. Will Kosova become independent of the UN administration and
completely free from Serbia and the former Yugoslavia in the next twelve
months? Will the people of Albania remove the openly corrupt government
of Fatos Nano in the July elections this year and begin the road to real
democracy and free enterprise there? Will Macedonian Slavs completely
implement municipal decentralization and the Ohrid agreement this year,
so that Albanians finally can attain political and economic equality and
social justice there? Will Montenegro, in gaining its independence from
Serbia, finally treat its Albanian citizens with respect and equality?
Will Greece admit its genocide of the ethnic Albanian Chams of Northern
Greece and its suppression of the Albanian language and other human
rights for some 500,000 Albanians, including Chams, Arvanites, and
immigrants primarily from Albania who come to Greece in search of work?
Will Serbia finally implement the peace agreement with the UCPMB in the
Presheva Valley, so that the 100,000 Albanians who were unfairly severed
from Kosova and annexed to Serbia in 1956 can enjoy all the rights and
privileges of their Serbian neighbors?

Do we wait for God or some other force to make things right for the
Albanian people? Do we just say "God willing" or "Inshallah" and sit
around and do nothing while the traditional adversaries of the Albanian
people, basically Serbia, Greece, France, and Russia, plan to extend the
political subjugation and economic slavery of the Albanian people of the
Balkans? (If one has any doubts about the veracity of the latter,
please consider at least 60 percent unemployment in Kosova, 40 percent
unemployment in Albania, 75 percent unemployment in Presheva, no
recognition of Albanian political, human, or economic rights for over
500,000 Albanians in Greece, and a very uncertain future for 60,000
Albanians in Montenegro and 800,000 Albanians in Macedonia.)

The Albanian American Civic League and its affiliates, the Albanian American
Foundation and the Albanian American Public Affairs Committee, through
its volunteer leadership under a former U.S. Congressman of Albanian
heritage and Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, a professional publisher, author,
and political strategist, and a board of directors consisting of
forty-three ethnic Albanians representing all parts of the Albanian
nation of seven million in the Balkans and fifteen million worldwide and
who contribute much of the funds raised to accomplish the Civic League's
objectives, have decided to act in an even more concerted way to combat
the Serbian and Greek propaganda machines.

What we did in New York City at the Sheraton Hotel on May 15, what
we did with Jewish and Christian religious leaders in New York on May
16, and what we did with religious and political leaders in Washington
from May 17 to May 20 was both historic and effective. Basically we
accepted the public relations challenge of the Serbs and the Greeks, and
their supporters, by actively responding to their publicly proclaimed
(since World War II, at least) myths about the Albanian people. By
joining with Jewish and other political and religious leaders on the
fifteenth anniversary of the Civic League, coinciding with the sixtieth
anniversary of our Jewish brothers and sisters being freed from the Nazi
death camps in 1945, we sent a strong message to all Americans that
Albanians are a very tolerant people who saved all Jews already living
in Albania and surrounding Albanian lands during World War II, as well
as all Jews who were fortunate to escape from Western European
countries, and from Serbia and Greece, into Albanian lands in Kosova,
Macedonia, and Montenegro. And, by bringing Bishop Sopi, Fr. Lush
Gjergi, and Fr. Shan Zefi to be with us and to speak at the Sheraton
dinner and testify on May 18 before the full House International
Relations Committee in Washington, cochaired by Congressional leaders on
both sides of the political aisle, Chairman Henry Hyde and Congressman
Tom Lantos, we sent a strong signal that Albanians share, harmoniously,
three major religions-Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity.
This is not the image that Serbia and Greece want Americans to know, but
this is the reality of the Albanian experience in the Balkans and all
over the world, and we "showcased" it in New York and Washington for all
to see. We have now set the stage for a huge public relations battle
with Serbia and its allies in the UN, and this is a campaign that we
must win this year if Kosova is to gain its independence from Serbia,
once and for all.

For those of you who could not attend our historic fifteen
anniversary dinner, "A Salute to Albanian Tolerance, Resistance, and
Hope: Remembering Besa and the Holocaust," we honored three great
Jewish Americans-Harvey Sarner, who wrote Rescue in Albania (the story
of Albanians risking their lives to save Jews in World War II, which was
handed out to everyone who attended), Norman Gershman, the fine arts
photographer who made two trips to Albania and one to Kosova over the
past year to photograph and record the Albanian families who saved Jews,
and Mike Fishman, the president of Service Employees International
Union, Local 32BJ, for empowering thousands of Albanians in the New York
Metropolitan area with jobs and benefits. Our keynote speaker was
Congressman Tom Lantos, a Jewish American who himself escaped the Nazi
death camps and who introduced the first Congressional Resolution for
Kosova's independence in 1992 and in many Congresses since then. Also
speaking at the dinner were House International Relations Committee
Chairman Henry Hyde and former Chairman Ben Gilman (another great Jewish
American) who has championed Albanian human rights and independence of
Kosova with me and Shirley for over twenty years now.

Other speakers included New York's senior U.S. Senator Charles
Schumer, New York State Senator Jeff Klein, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik (the
head of the New York Board of Rabbis), Rabbi Arthur Schneier (Appeal of
Conscience Movement), Bishop Mark Sopi, Frs. Lush Gjergji and Shan Zefi,
Fr. Pjeter Popaj, Kosova Minister Ardian Gjini, and Albanian Professors
Petrit Zorba and Apostol Kotani (the Albanian-Israeli Friendship
Association). Governor Pataki and New York State Senator Nick Spano
sent their official greetings from Albany in the form of a New York
Senate Resolution supporting the independence of Kosova, which was
passed on May 10, 2005, and signed by the Governor in time for our
anniversary dinner. (It is presented in full in our dinner journal.)
Albanian Orthodox Bishop Nikon, Boston Orthodox Church Chancellor Fr.
Arthur Liolin, and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York also sent their
greetings and blessings to us that evening. So this was not just a
celebration, it was the first "canon blast" across the bow of the
Serbian and Greek propaganda machines that the public relations battle
for the image and future of the Albanian people is now joined.
The second canon volley fired by our Civic League and its delegation
from Kosova and Albania was on May 16 at prearranged meetings with Rabbi
Schneier at his Park East Synagogue offices and with Cardinal Edward
Egan at his residence. It was very important to meet with Rabbi
Schneier, an internationally respected leader for human rights, social
justice, and peace, and we are deeply grateful to our good friend Ben
Gilman for facilitating this meeting. (Rabbi Schneier had just returned
from a trip to Russia with President Bush to commemorate in Moscow the
sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Jews from the Nazi
concentration camps.)

The timing of our meeting could not have been
better since a delegation of Serbian Orthodox priests met with Rabbi
Schneier three weeks earlier in New York and placed photos with him on
the website of the Serbian Unity Congress (the lobby of Belgrade and the
Serbian Orthodox Church) to gain political advantage in Washington
before our hearing and in making their case to the Bush administration
that "Kosovo and Metohija" should remain an integral part of Serbia.
(While I will report on the great success of this meeting in a future
article, please see the photo of the important working session that we
had with the Rabbi and Bishop Sopi et al.) The one thing that really
stuck in my mind after this meeting was the look of surprise on the face
of Rabbi Schneier when, in answer to a question, Bishop Sopi revealed
that there is no communication between him and the leader of the Serbian
Orthodox Church, even though Bishop Sopi has tried to reach him on
several occasions in the last two years. The Serbian Orthodox Church
clearly showed its lack of respect for Bishop Sopi and his large
Catholic congregation in Kosova when, according to Bishop Sopi, the
Serbian Patriarch picked up the phone in Belgrade on one occasion, but
immediately handed it to his secretary to continue the conversation with
the Bishop. Rabbi Schneier, who has labored hard to bring so many
religious and ethnic factions together around the world, was unaware of
this and clearly shocked by Bishop Sopi's revelation. He promised to
make ethnic and religious peace and reconciliation in Kosova and Serbia
one of his immediate priorities.

The meeting with Cardinal Egan at his residence behind St.
Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan just before we left for Washington was
noteworthy in several respects. (Using my position as a former
Congressman and as a Knight of Malta in the Catholic Church, I had set
this up directly with the Cardinal's secretary.) Our delegation was
greeted very warmly by Cardinal Egan, who voiced his support for the
Albanian people and promised to follow up on my suggestion to have an
annual Mass for all Albanians at St. Patrick's Cathedral either on the
occasion of Mother Teresa's birthday (August 26) each year or on Flag
Day (November 28). (Please see the photo of our delegation at the
Cardinal's residence.)

The third shot across the bow of the Serbian propaganda machine and
their "Orthodox lobby" in Washington were our meetings with Congressmen
Lantos, Hyde, and Rohrabacher, and the full House International
Relations Committee hearing on Kosova on May 18, to which the Bush
administration sent the third highest ranking State Department official,
Ambassador Nicholas Burns, to deal with the failing U.S. policy for
Kosova and the Balkans. It was obvious to all at the beginning of the
fully packed hearing room that this was going to be an important hearing
on Kosova's final status. The day before the hearing, a major article
appeared in The Washington Post, entitled "Bush Has Plan to Act on the
Status of Kosovo." After not being able to convince Hyde and Lantos to
postpone or cancel the hearing, the Bush administration decided that it
was time to act and try to stop the political and economic conditions in
Kosova from deteriorating any further. This was a big win for our
lobbying efforts, since the Civic League has been saying, since the end
of the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, that the United
States, and not Europe or the UN, has the power and should have the
determination to lead a process that culminates in the independence of
Kosova-the only real option for lasting peace and stability in the
Balkans and, therefore, in Europe, which is in the vital interest of the
United States (see Shirley Cloyes's testimony for Kosova at, which makes this case very well).

The fourth round of our public relations campaign against Serbian
lies and propaganda took place in Maryland and Washington, where our
delegation led by Bishop Sopi met with Cardinal McCarrick, leader of the
Catholic Archdiocese in Baltimore (see photos), Archbishop Montalvo, who
is the Papal Nuncio representing Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican in
Washington (see photo), and with the leaders of the U.S. Catholic
Conference of Bishops and Catholic Relief Services. This phase ended on
a high note in Washington on the morning of May 20, where, with the help
of former Congressmen Ben Gilman and Lee Hamilton, we were able to
position Ardian Gjini, Kosova's Minister of Environment and Spatial
Planning, and AACL Balkan Affairs Adviser Shirley Cloyes to give
speeches about Kosova at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for
Scholars in Washington (see photo). I spoke briefly at this forum as
well, ending my comments by thanking the Center, on behalf of all
Albanians, for the crucial role that President Woodrow Wilson played in
saving the State of Albania from total political and geographic
annihilation at the end of World War I.

Finally, on May 20, Shirley and I headed to New York with Ardian
Gjini, while Bishop Sopi, Frs. Gjergji and Zefi, and our Civic League
board members from Michigan, Marash Nuculaj, Zef Dedivanaj, and Kol
Dedvukaj, headed for Michigan to report on our successful trip to Fr.
Anton Qira and the Albanian people of the greater Detroit area. Shirley
and I unexpectedly joined the delegation again at St. Paul's Church on
May 23 to attend the funeral of Pjeter Nuculaj, Marash's first cousin,
who was tragically hit by a truck and killed while we were in
Washington. He was only forty years old and left behind a wife and five
children. I was honored to be asked to speak at Pjeter's funeral, and I
will close with some of the words I said to try to comfort the family,
our good friend and patriot Marash, and the Albanian community there. I
said that God has a purpose, in life and in death, for each one of us.
Since we are only mortal, and we know from our faith and experience that
God's ways are not man's ways, we do not know why Pjeter was taken from
his family and from us so early in his productive life. I said further
that any one of us can be called by God today or tomorrow and that an
important lesson from Pjeter's tragic death (for all of us) is to love,
hug, and appreciate one another everyday, and not take our lives, our
family, and our friends for granted. We are easily distracted from this
lesson by our daily obligations and habits, and we need to recognize
this fact if Pjeter's, or anyone's untimely death for that matter, is to
mean anything for us. I ended by saying that I believed that Pjeter was
now with Mother Teresa in heaven, and that we should all pray to him and
to Mother Teresa to give us the peace, wisdom, and courage we need to
help our family, our friends, and the Albanian nation.

I began this article by affirming the separation of church and
state. I end this article by affirming the presence of God in
everything that we do and that we must take time to listen to God's
voice in all of us. This is obviously a personal, not a political,
statement, as it should be. I believe that I have heard God's voice in
the Albanian people, Christian and Muslim, especially when my father,
speaking Albanian to his youngest sister, met the Albanians of Kosova by
accident in 1985 during my first year as a Congressman, and then again
in 1993 when I met Shirley, again by accident. I know now, more than
ever, that I must continue to act, as well as pray, for the Albanian
people, especially those seeking freedom for Kosova now from their
Serbian oppressors in Belgrade. I believe that there has never been a
better time for all Albanians in the Balkans and that we cannot let this
great opportunity to gain worldwide respect for the Albanian nation slip
through our fingers through inaction or ineffective action.

May 30, 2005


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