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Albania: Missionaries Nonplussed by Child Suicide Links
A string of inexplicable suicides by children aged nine to 16 over the past three months has sparked a media-led campaign against the Jehovah's Witnesses religious group.
Statements by relatives that several of the children had been reading tracts put out by the organisation have fuelled feverish claims that the group is linked in a sinister way to the deaths.
The tragic chain of events began on February 12, when police found 11-year-old Alda Cenaj dead in her family's apartment in Fier, in central Albania. She had apparently hung herself with a scarf in the bathroom.
While the police did not attribute a motive to her apparent suicide, Alda's parents told the media their daughter had been reading literature put out by Witnesses.
Arben Cebaj, her cousin, told IWPR he had heard her speaking often about the eternal happiness believers might expect after death – a belief which he claims came directly from the group’s literature.
The death of Alda Cenaj was followed by a number of other apparent child suicides, a phenomenon with no known precedent in recent Albanian history.
Within three months, until mid-May, the ministry of public order had registered ten cases of suicide by children aged 9 to 16.
Media interviews with relatives and prosecutors all highlighted a common link to the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The children had either been receiving regular copies of the group’s publication, The Protectors' Fortress(Kulla e Rojes), or had been taking part in its activities.
One account, which was widely published in the media, concerned the death on February 20 of 13-year-old Eriola Elezi, from Mokra e Siperme, near Podgradec.
The mayor of Podgradec, Ramazan Rapce, told IWPR that the villagers had told him that "the victim belonged to a religious association from Germany for three months prior to his suicide".
The mayor said he was sure it must have been the Jehova's Witnesses, as they held meetings in the area every Friday.
A third case involved Viron Dhani, who committed suicide in Fier in mid-April. Again, the local police declared that were investigating whether Jehovah's Witnesses' literature was possibly linked to his death.
Viron's school friend, Ledion told IWPR that Viron often talked about the group, while his uncle, Vangjeli, told IWPR that "after his suicide we found Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlets in his trousers".
The group was also linked to the death of Johana Rajdho, 11, who killed herself in Tirana shortly after Alda Cebaj's suicide in Fier.
"Johana was very closed in herself and she used to say she wanted to die, because only then would she be happy," Klodi, one of Johana's friends, told IWPR.
The media in Albania has rushed to place most of the blame for the suicides on the Jehovah's Witnesses. An article of April 5 in the magazine Sot, after the suicide of Toni Petrushi, 13, squarely blamed the religious literature found in the victim's house for the child's untimely death.
While the media has rushed to point accusing fingers at the group, its members say they are nonplussed by the hostile claims.
A commentator on religious affairs in Tirana, Elvis Plaku, said there was no link between children's suicides in Albania and the group's literature.
"Jehovah's Witnesses' doctrine highlights eternal life and paradise," said Plaku.
"But I don't see that as problematic. Associating suicides with Jehovah's Witnesses does not seem to me based on reality."
Mamica, another committed member of the group, pointed out that its beliefs did not countenance suicide as an option for any believer.
"The essence of our doctrine is resurrection after a successful and moral life," he told IWPR. "It should not be cut off by the person himself.
"Our purpose is to spread the light of Jehovah's teachings.We do not preach suicide."
Plaku blames the media for stirring up hostility against the organisation. "Relations between Jehovah's Witnesses and the community have become strained because of the prejudiced media," he said. “They have misinterpreted our literature.
"The main fault lies with them for our worsening relations with the community."
Some Jehovah's Witnesses say the suicides are far more likely to be connected to difficult circumstances at home, school or at work than to their literature.
"No one wants to say that it's ever the family's or the school's fault for these situations," said Plaku.
Media attention on the group partly reflects the fact that it has grown markedly in Albania in recent years.
Since the 1990s, some 3,500 missionaries have been active at one time or another in the country.
According to a letter sent by Michale Di Gregorio, head of the group in Albania, to prime minister Fatos Nano in May 2004, their work consists mainly of evangelising, which they do by distributing free literature, house by house.
Altin Hazizai, of the Centre for Protecting Children's Rights in Albania, agrees with members of the group that their work has no link to child suicides.
"If they promoted self-sacrifice like this, they would not even be legally recognised in the many countries where they have branches," he told IWPR.
Hazizaj believes children's suicides in Albania are more often linked to violence in the family and to troubles at school, as well as to the lack of hopes for the future.
"It wouldn't surprise me if some of the suicides were connected to the rough times Albania went through, such as the crisis in 1997 and the war in Kosovo," he said.
"All these children were born around that time and lived through these events."
Ilir Kuilla, head of the country's Committee for Cults, said he wanted to see legal proof of the group’s role in these suicides before joining its legion of critics.
"We have to watch out against joining an inquisition," he told IWPR.
"It's important that we guarantee freedom of religion for everyone and that the state protects that freedom."
In a cautionary move, however, the head of parliament's commission for public order, Neritan Ceka, has announced new legislation to set limits on "the activity of religious organisations… in relation to children".
With no firm answers about what is behind these mysterious tragedies, civic groups are demanding more information on the suicides and more preventative action.
The Network for Human Rights Protection, an NGO, urged the ministries of health and education to come up with new strategies on children's mental health and on violence in schools and in families.
Suicide has now joined the long list of problems afflicting Albanian children. Already they are at the top of Europe's list as victims of trafficking, underage employment and illiteracy.
Suela Musta is a contributor to the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network - a localised IWPR project.
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