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Kosovo's Burning

The jihadist threat to the country's Christians grows.

12:00 AM, Sep 1, 2009 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Apostasy is unpopular among most religious communities, and is especially problematical in Islam. The belief that leaving one's religion should be punished by death has become dominant in many Muslim countries, although it has no basis in the Koran. Yet the official historian of the Catholic church in Kosovo, Gasper Gjini, has pointed out that in 1846, "to everyone's surprise," the Laramani were granted the right to return to the Christianity of their forebears, after clashes with Muslim fanatics, by Rashid Pasha, the local Ottoman military commander. Non-Albanian historians have offered varying accounts of these events, but Gjini's work is based in primary source documents in Catholic archives. Rashid Pasha's judgment was confirmed by an order of the Turkish sultan. Thus, Kosovo has long had a clear precedent negating the claim that those who leave Islam should be killed.

The record of Ottoman governance and the tradition of Albanian religious coexistence, however, mean nothing to fundamentalist extremists. Kosovo, like other Muslim lands, is now under assault by incendiaries who wish to make personal changes in religion a pretext for terror. This malign development comes even as American and other Christian missionaries enjoy wide freedom to proselytize in the territory.

Three issues are illuminated by the flames of Gjon Mehaj's house in Kosovo.

First, the Balkans are no less targeted by jihadists than other crisis areas, as al Qaeda continues probing for opportunities to attack the friends of an America suddenly weakened by confusion and naivete in the White House.

Second, both foreign and local authorities in Kosovo may bear significant responsibility, by failing to respond vigorously to such incidents, for the obvious impunity with which the men in masks, whether Arab, Albanian, or otherwise, have committed crimes against people and property.

Third, death penalties against those who leave Islam do more harm to the faith of Muhammad than those who abandon or change their religion. Protests against penalties for apostasy are widely publicized by Western governments and international institutions. But Kosovar Albanians, like many others at immediate risk, may be left to defend themselves for their choice of conscience.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.