The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, all religions are equal, and the state has the duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state is neutral in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It states everyone is free to choose or change their religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution also states individuals may not be compelled to participate or excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties or other groups from inciting religious hatred.
By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Cults, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance, and support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.
The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and obtaining some degree of tax-exempt status, a religious group must register with the district court as a nonprofit association. The registration process entails submission of information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, the identities of its founders and legal representatives, the nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g. government ministries and civil society organizations) in a particular field, the address of the organization, and payment of a 1,000 lek ($8) fee to the district court. A judge is randomly assigned within 3 to 4 days of the submission of an application, and the process usually concludes within one session.
The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. The bilateral agreements serve to codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A provision of law enacted in 2009 specifies the government will provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it has agreements dating from the same time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law stipulating the VUSH should receive financial support from the government.
The law requires the ATP – previously the Agency for the Restitution and Compensation of Property – to address claims by religious groups for properties confiscated during the communist era.
The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.
Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits religious instruction in them. Private schools may offer religious instruction. According to official figures, religious groups, organizations, and foundations have 125 affiliated associations and foundations managing 116 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox groups operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes, but offer them as an elective. The Muslim community runs seven madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to representatives of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities, the total government financial support for these four groups remained at 109 million lek ($850,000), the same as in 2015, with the Muslim community receiving a 28 percent share and the remaining three each receiving a 24 percent share. This support covered partial salaries for administrative and educational staff. For the Bektashi community, which had fewer staff, part of the support it received was used for new places of worship as well as for global outreach activities of its Tirana-based Bektashi World Headquarters.
Despite requests from the VUSH, the government continued not to provide it financial support. It did not amend the agreement with the VUSH to add the provision of financial support nor did it amend the law to include such financial support.
The government accelerated the process of legalizing unofficial mosques and issued 137 property certificates, compared to six in the previous year. The majority of these unregistered mosques had been built without permission during the 1990s. The government required endorsement from the Albanian Islamic Community (AIC) to legalize unofficial mosques.
Religious groups stated the government had made some progress addressing their claims for restitution or the return of property seized during the communist era. The government did not return any properties but approved partial compensation for 31 properties that had belonged to the Catholic Church, the AIC, and the Bektashi community. The government also stated some communities had not yet gone through the required step of requesting the funds.
Out of the many hundreds of claims submitted by the religious communities to the ATP since the fall of the communist regime in 1990, the vast majority remained unresolved. Religious groups continued to blame the slow progress with regard to the claims on government corruption, legal complexities stemming from the country’s communist past, and competing claims for the same property from individuals or private organizations. The ATP acknowledged there was a problem with the restitution process, saying the competing property claims and the constant restructuring and proliferation of government agencies involved in property disputes since the 1990s had left no agreement between the government and the religious communities on the number of valid property claims submitted over the past 25 years. The ATP met with the communities in March to begin reconciling lists of property claims and established a task force specifically to follow up on these claims.
The ATP reported it continued to budget funds for previous government decisions recognizing the rights of religious communities to numerous properties.
Although the government had promised to clear debris from a site in Dhermi where the local Inspectorate for the Protection of Territory had demolished an Orthodox church in August 2015, as of the end of the year the site remained untouched. A promise to find an alternate location for a new church had also gone unfulfilled. Authorities continued to state the Orthodox church had been built illegally on the site where a culturally significant 17th century church had stood. The Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania continued to protest the demolition.
VUSH members said they continued to rent existing buildings to use as places of worship, and reported continued difficulties in acquiring land on which to construct their own buildings due to local government tax assessments and regulations. They stated these difficulties impeded their ability to hold religious services and to run youth and social activities.
Construction continued on Bektashi places of worship in Korca, Permet, Gjirokaster, and Elbasan. Although the central government provided financial support to help build the properties in Permet and Gjirokaster, Bektashi representatives reported property disputes with some local government offices in these cities delayed progress.
In April Prime Minister Edi Rama announced a pilot project in 10 of the country’s secondary schools to introduce a new curriculum aimed at promoting religious tolerance. The prime minister and minister of education stated the initiative would not affect the country’s secular education system, and would serve as a way to counter violent extremism. Some religious communities expressed disappointment over what they saw as the limited consultation with them prior to the announcement. Religious leaders also expressed concern regarding the capacity of teachers to teach the new religious curriculum, as well as their own capacity to contribute to this initiative. While the government did not present a full version of the new curriculum by year’s end, it introduced elements of the new curriculum into the normal civics courses of several secondary schools.
VUSH leaders stated their churches continued to face problems early in the year concerning local tax requirements, particularly with regard to property taxes. In May VUSH reached an agreement with the Tirana municipality confirming VUSH’s exemption from these taxes. Some local governments continued to assess fines for nonpayment of other taxes, such as sales taxes, however, and VUSH administrators frequently had to appeal these fines, with varying degrees of success.
Representatives from the Catholic, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities all continued to state their numbers were underrepresented in the 2011 official census, leading to an inaccurate picture of the religious demographics of the country.