Balkan regions fight over claims to Mother Teresa

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Just about everyone in this city accepts that Mother Teresa was a good person. That's about all they agree on.

As the late nun and Nobel Peace Prize laureate heads toward sainthood, a distinctively Balkan quarrel has broken out over bragging rights to her ancestry. The world knows her as Albanian. Or should that be Macedonian? Or Vlach? And what about Kosovo?

Mother Teresa's message of borderless Christian love has run up against the historic fractures that led to six months of fighting in this Balkan country between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Macedonian troops in 2001. The same forces are now sparring over an inscription to be placed on her statue.

Kosovo and Albania have also staked their claims.

"It's very sad," said Sister Petra, who runs a soup kitchen and other programs for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Macedonia's capital, Skopje. "She stood for love, for unity and for peace. ... They are fighting over things that are completely against her legacy."

Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in Skopje. Her parents were ethnic Albanians from Kosovo who moved across the border to present-day Macedonia at a time when the territory was part of the Ottoman Empire, according to her unofficial biographer, the Rev. Lush Gjergji.

In her lifetime, she described herself as both an ethnic Albanian and a "Skopjanka" -- someone from Skopje.

The trouble began when Macedonian civic leaders offered to donate a bronze statue of Mother Teresa to Rome in honor of her beatification Sunday, the last step before sainthood. A similar statue stands in downtown Skopje.

When an ethnic Albanian newspaper, Fakti, reported that the inscription on the statue would call her a "daughter of Macedonia," and would play down her Albanian ancestry, many were outraged.

"The denial of Mother Teresa's origin is not a momentary delirium, but a deeply considered political strategy with an aim of dominating Albanians again -- just like other times during history," said Arben Xhaferi, leader of the ethnic Albanian opposition.

Further complicating matters, claims emerged that Mother Teresa's father was a Vlach, another minority group here.

Saso Cholakovski, the Macedonian government spokesman, said the country just wanted to honor someone born in Skopje. He denied the Fakti report and insisted an inscription had not yet been discussed.

"What if we had said: half-Vlach, half-Albanian, half-Macedonian? Would it be OK then? It's really stupid," he said.

Mother Teresa's second cousin, Katarina Pina Marku, who lives in Skopje, also finds the controversy ludicrous. She is certain her childhood playmate, the girl she knew as Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, was an Albanian.

Marku, now nearly 90, still remembers her shock at learning her cousin would become a nun and later the world's best-known nun.

"I never thought she'd become so big!" Marku exclaimed in a high-pitched voice, as though still startled about it. "A lot of people didn't know about her. Then she won the Nobel Prize. Since then, everyone wants to possess her."

Count the people of Albania among them. They've dedicated an entire year to honoring Mother Teresa, and on beatification day, climbers will scale 9,124-foot Korab Mountain to put up a statue of her.

Kosovo, under U.N. and NATO protection since its bloody 1999 break with Serbia, is also excited, especially the town of Letnica, where Mother Teresa discovered her vocation.

Thousands already come to the town to honor its centuries-old Black Madonna on the annual feast of the Assumption, camping out in the surrounding hay and alfalfa fields.

The Rev. Kriste Gjergji is the parish priest at the church in Letnica where Mother Teresa prayed before deciding to become a nun. He expects the pilgrims to multiply in number.

"More and more people call and ask: 'Are there apartments available?' " he said as he gazed over a valley dotted with stone farmhouses tucked into hills melting together in the mist settling at dusk.

Across the border in Macedonia, meanwhile, the plans for the statue are on hold to let things cool off.

As they paused near the plaque marking Mother Teresa's birthplace, in a house in Skopje near what is now a shopping mall, Aneta Sutarova, 30, and her friend Mila Stanoeska, 27, shook their heads in dismay at the quarrel.

"She did great things while she was alive," Sutarova said. "We should celebrate that."

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