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Feature 08 Mar 16

Albanian Imam’s Syrian Fears and ISIS Despair

An Albanian imam and his Syrian wife who left Damascus before the war said they fear for the lives of relatives left behind, and believe Islamic State is a ‘cancer’ for Islam.

Fatjona Mejdini BIRN Tirana
Imam Mara and his youngest daughter Vjollca | Photo: BIRN 

Gentjan Mara knows Syria very well. The Albanian imam spent almost nine years of his life learning Islamic theology while living in the capital, Damascus.

But his relationship with the country, currently in the global spotlight as a result of its bitter conflict, is now even stronger. In 2008, while he was still living there, he got married to Hanan, a Syrian woman who became the mother of their three children.

Ali, the seven-year-old boy standing next to him on a Saturday morning inside the mosque on the northern outskirts of Tirana, was born in Damascus in 2009.

But in July 2011, Mara decided to bring the family to Tirana, and a few days afterwards, he took charge of the newly-built Shtish-Tufine mosque, resolving to spend his life spreading the word of Allah to his Albanian compatriots.

He didn't know back then that his decision to leave Damascus would be right for the rest of his family as well. At that time, the first protests against the Assad regime had started, even though even he couldn't have been able to predict what would happen next.

"While I was departing from Syria, I could never have believed the disaster that was to follow. What has happened was just beyond me and my family’s imagination," Mara told BIRN.

Fears for Damascus

Imam and his Syrian wife Hanan | Photo: BIRN

The Mara family own a three-storey villa in the Babrru neighborhood of Tirana, part of the Kamza municipality, the first two floors of which are rented to a variety of businesses.

But despite their comfortable life in Albania, the imam and his wife are burdened by worries about Syria and their relatives living still there.

"My parents and siblings live in the central part of Damascus where the war is not as severe as in some other cities in Syria, although I fear for their lives every day," said Hanan.

"Once while I was speaking with my mother I heard the noise of bombs and the line dropped," she said, her eyes tearing up as she spoke.

A lot of Hanan’s relatives have been wounded or killed during the ongoing conflict.

"My heart is hurting, while I have no chance to see them now, and to bring them here [to Albania] is very difficult," she said.

"Only my hopes and dreams are alive. I dream that one day my children will go and do their studies in Damascus and will have the chance to see all those beautiful places that I talk to them about," she added.

An injured refugee

Although Albania is not on the main Balkan route used by refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, the Mara family did find an opportunity to help in the crisis.

Amal, a 56-year-old psychologist from Syria, was found with a broken leg in a forest near Albania’s Greek border after she was abandoned by the smugglers who she had believed would take her to Germany.

She was transported to a hospital in Tirana, where the Mara family heard about her plight via Syrian friends in Albania, and went to visit her.

"When Hanan and I saw her situation and the severe shock that she had gone through, we decided to open our house to her," the imam said.

Amal stayed with the Mara family for around three months in the summer of 2015 and Hanan took care of her until her broken leg was mended and she could head off again towards Germany.

"We speak with her very often on the telephone, she is well now. She and my wife become very close during her staying here. I believe Hanan saw her as a mother," Mara suggested.

The ‘cancer’ of ISIS

Imam Mara inside the mosque of Shtish-Tufine that he runs | Photo: BIRN 

Mara has been following the news about imams in Albania who have been charged with calling on their countrymen to join the Islamist militants fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Around 90 Albanians are so far reported to have travelled to Syria to join Islamic State, ISIS.

Mara said that various believers have asked his opinion about going to participate in ISIS’s hardline struggle for a caliphate.

"I have said to them that every good Muslim should first build his own house well, serve his people and community and learn more every day about their religion, Islam. This is how they can best serve their religion," he said.

"Albanian Muslims don't have any reason to go and fight in somebody else war because they don't know the reality and they are going to be used and exploited by criminal elements as has happened in Syria and Iraq," he added.

His view of ISIS is simple, he said: "ISIS is a cancer for Islam and for Syria as well."

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