The Magazine

Mother Teresa's Family Tree

From the October 27, 2003 issue: Everyone in the Balkans wants a piece of her.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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OCTOBER 19 IS THE DAY the Roman Catholic Church will mark the beatification of Ganxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu, the Albanian woman known to the world as Mother Teresa. Beatification is the last step before canonization, or sainthood, and the occasion is one of celebration for Catholics around the world.

Others should celebrate with equal fervor. Mother Teresa offered an exceptional example of self-sacrifice for the betterment of others. The vocation of her Missionaries of Charity is to care for the poorest of the poor.

But Mother Teresa's beatification has provoked a bizarre controversy in the city of her birth, where two ethnic factions are fighting to claim her. Impenetrable though it may seem to outsiders, this little uproar illustrates the enduring bad blood between Slavs and Albanians--and shows why American peacekeepers, though they may soon be withdrawn from Bosnia-Herzegovina, must remain in Kosovo.

Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in the 2,000-year-old city of Skopje, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Today, Skopje is the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, a statelet of 2 million people that gained its independence in 1991 with the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Because the Greeks vehemently object to its use of the name Macedonia--which they consider their property; the father of Alexander the Great was Philip of Macedon--this small country joined the U.N. as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and is known in international-speak by the hideous handle "the FYROM.")

Macedonia--for which the French and Italians named a salad combining many vegetables or fruits chopped into little pieces--is nothing if not Balkanized. Its population is roughly 60 percent Slavs, most of them Orthodox Christians, some of them Muslims; and 40 percent other, of whom most are ethnic Albanians, most of them Muslims, about a fifth Roman Catholics, a few Orthodox. The rest of the "other" are Turks, Gypsies, Bulgarians, Serbs, and so on.

Mother Teresa came from an old Catholic Albanian family, in a part of the world that was Albanian before it was Slav, and Christian long before it was Muslim. (The Slavs arrived around 600 A.D.; Islam arrived with the Ottoman invader in the 14th century.) But late last summer, Macedonian Slavs began to question her ethnic identity, maintaining she was a Slav or even a Serb--anything but Albanian.

This exercise in celebrity ethnic cleansing came to a head in the plan to donate a statue of Ganxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu to the city of Rome, a copy of a statue already standing in Skopje. The inscription would identify Mother Teresa as a "daughter of Macedonia" in the Cyrillic script used by Macedonian Slavs. The Albanian language is written in the Latin alphabet.

Such gestures are charged in Macedonia. Only two years ago, an Albanian insurgency in the country was resolved by European intervention, with U.S. diplomatic backing, and Albanian cultural rights were finally recognized, at least on paper. Because most of them are Muslims, the Albanians have been alleged by fearmongers to be al Qaeda supporters. But this could hardly be further from the truth. Their Islam is culturally Ottoman and European, entirely accepting of pluralism and modernity. What's more, Albanians everywhere remain lovers of America, because of our rescue of their brethren in Kosovo in 1999 and, before that, our help extended repeatedly through the twentieth century to assure Albanian independence. Woodrow Wilson is a figure they revere. After September 11, some 5,000 Kosovar Albanians volunteered to fight alongside us in Afghanistan.

In the weird media debate that erupted in Macedonia over Mother Teresa, the specter of radical Islam was invoked. The New York Times added to the paranoia. In a piece that seemed to legitimize doubt about Mother Teresa's origins, reporter Ian Fisher wrote, "Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic, while most Albanians are Muslim, and this has opened a crack for speculation about Mother Teresa's actual ethnic roots." Fisher quoted various Slav Macedonians arguing that Mother Teresa's father was probably a Vlach. Americans have never heard of Vlachs, a small Balkan ethnic group speaking a language close to Romanian. Vlachs herd sheep and seldom come down from their mountain pastures.

Another argument trotted out by anti-Albanian forces was that because Ganxhe Bojaxhiu's brother had the first name "Lazar," the family may have been Serbian. Tsar Lazar was a noted 14th-century Serbian ruler. But Lazar was also the first name of some of the most famous Albanians of recent times, including Lazar Fundo, an early anti-Stalinist martyred by the Communists; Lazar Shantoja, a Catholic poet tortured and executed by the Marxist regime of Enver Hoxha in 1945; and Lazar Gusho, the greatest modern Albanian poet, whom the Communists allowed to live to the age of 88 only because he pretended to be crazy.