Monday, October 23, 2006

Kosovo Islamic leaders join call for independence

PRISTINA, Serbia, Oct 23 (Reuters) - In a rare foray into politics, Islamic leaders in Kosovo on Monday added their voice to the Albanian majority's call for independence from Serbia.

Most of Kosovo's two million ethnic Albanians are nominally Muslim, but they are proud of the territory's secular tradition. This year's Ramadan passed with little trace of piety.

Marking the Eid al-Fitr feast in the capital, Pristina, the head of the Kosovo Islamic community, Mufti Naim Ternava, said independence for the breakaway Serbian province was the only acceptable outcome to talks expected to end within months.

"We are waiting for the U.N. Security Council to make its decision," he told worshippers at the 15th century Sultan Mehmet Fatih mosque. "The will and desire of the people should be respected. Independence is the only option."

Islamic leaders have little influence in Kosovo and rarely venture into politics, contrary to Serbia's warnings that an independent Kosovo would become a hotbed of extremism in Europe.

Ismail Hasani, professor of religion at Pristina University, said just 8-10 percent of people regularly attend prayers, "and the majority of these people are 50 and older."

"Albanians are too busy dealing with their economic, political and social status," he told Reuters. "The Islamic religion is accepted as a vehicle of culture and tradition."

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing and atrocities against Albanians in a two-year war with guerrillas.

Talks on its "final status" began in February, with Western diplomats predicting some form of independence within months.

The Kosovo Albanians' secularism contrasts with the increasingly vocal role played by the Orthodox Church in Serbia's politics and society since the country emerged from 50 years of Socialist rule in the 1990s.

Many Serbs see Kosovo as the birthplace of their Orthodox faith, a land dotted with centuries-old monasteries.

Nationalists in the Church and political elite in Belgrade have tried to play up the Islamic angle to block Kosovo's bid for independence, warning of al Qaeda infiltration and Muslim radicalisation in Europe.