By Benet Koleka
SHKODER, Albania (Reuters) - Muslims in Albania's northern city of Shkoder are opposing plans to erect a statue to Mother Teresa, the ethnic Albanian Catholic nun in line for elevation to sainthood by the Vatican.
The dispute is unusual for Albania, where religion was banned for 27 years under the regime of dictator Enver Hoxha and where religious harmony and mixed marriages are the norm.
Seventy percent of the population are liberal Muslims, the rest are Christian Orthodox and Catholic.
But Muslim groups in Shkoder rejected the local council plan for a Teresa statue, saying it "would offend the feelings of Muslims."
"We do not want this statue to be erected in a public place because we see her as a religious figure," said Bashkim Bajraktari, Shkoder's mufti or Muslim religious leader.
"If there must be a statue, let it be in a Catholic space."
Several residents told Reuters they felt there was an underground effort to treat Shkoder as a Catholic town, ignoring its majority Muslim community.
Shkoder's Muslims recently protested against crosses being erected on prominent hilltops.
"These acts jeopardise tolerance. Frankly, we're trying hard to maintain religious harmony," said deputy mufti Arben Halluni.
Skender Drini, a Shkoder writer and former diplomat, conceded the statue plan may have come at an inappropriate time.
"(But) if you rise against Mother Teresa, you rise against your own humanism and patriotism," he said.
Shkoder council has taken little notice of the controversy, deliberating a choice between one possible site at the entrance to the city and another near the center.
Born in Macedonia to Albanian parents, Mother Teresa is claimed by both countries. A square in Macedonia's capital Skopje bears her name, while Albania has named its international airport, a hospital, a square and a state medal after her.
Elsa Decka, 53, who said she was a Catholic with an Orthodox husband and a Muslim daughter-in-law, saw no reason why the statue should not be erected.
"Why not? She has done a lot of good for so many people,"" Decka said.
But men in one Shkoder bar said they would prefer a monument to an Albanian fighter who blew himself up in order to avoid being captured by enemy Serbs, or even to two Ottoman-era pashas remembered fondly in Shkoder.