Albania Showing Signs of a Comeback in Religion

An Orthodox Views the Former Communist Nation

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ALKMAAR, Netherlands, JAN. 17, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The world may have forgotten Albania, but the Orthodox and Catholic churches haven't.



Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and author of "The Resurrection of the Church in Albania" (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002), gave ZENIT his view on what has been happening in the former Communist nation.

Q: Albania was the first atheist state in the world. In what degree is there religious freedom in this country today?

Forest: For many years no country in the world, not even the Soviet Union or China, had more repressive legislation regarding religious life than Albania.

Not only was every place of worship closed -- in most cases destroyed -- but even within the home prayer was forbidden. No cross or icon could be hung anywhere.

However, in the past 12 years, after the collapse of Communism, the major obstacles to religious life have been removed. I haven't got the figures for the Catholic Church, but only 22 Orthodox priests were still alive when Communism at last collapsed in 1990.

Of approximately 1,600 Orthodox churches, monasteries and cultural centers that existed in Albania prior to 1967, less than 5% were still standing in 1990. Those that had not been demolished had been turned into armories, post offices, barns, laundries or put to other secular purposes.

Many thousands of Christians had been jailed or sent to labor camps, often dying as a consequence. There were also those, especially clergy, who were murdered or executed.

Q: You say that the Orthodox Church in Albania has been transformed from a repressed Church into a vibrant community. How has this been achieved?

Forest: A crucial factor was the hidden churches that survived in several places -- homes where, at great risk, baptisms were conducted, confessions heard, the liturgy celebrated, and marriages blessed.

Many people, though they had no access to services, nonetheless lived ... a prayerful life in their home -- again, a risky undertaking as there was always the danger of betrayal or of a child making an innocent but revealing remark at school. But perhaps the most important factor was the wisdom of the former ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios, in asking Archbishop Anastasios -- a missionary-minded Greek bishop then serving in Kenya -- to visit Albania.

The request came in January 1991. It was at the time not intended as a permanent assignment, only a reconnaissance effort to see if and how the local Church could be revived.

It would require, however, a substantial interruption of his work in Africa. "My main task was to try and find someone who could become bishop," Archbishop Anastasios told me, "but I was unable to find a priest who was prepared and strong enough. There were only a few priests who had survived, all of them old and often not in good health."

It would take six months before the reluctant authorities in Tirana finally issued a visa, and that was only initially for one month. "The Communist times were over, but not completely," as Archbishop Anastasios explained. "Attitudes formed in the course of many years of propaganda do not change quickly. However, once in the country, my visa was extended."

As events unfolded, however, his visit became permanent. Archbishop Anastasios now heads the revived Orthodox Church in Albania -- a term he greatly prefers to the Albanian Orthodox Church. One can sense the scale of Archbishop Anastasios' achievement in noting that in the past 10 years 80 new churches have been built, 75 churches restored from ruin, more than 140 churches have undergone major repairs, in almost every case major, and five monasteries brought back to life.

In addition, many 20 large buildings have been erected or renovated to house the theological academy in Durres, Holy Cross High School in Gjirokaster, the office of the Archdiocese in Tirana and diocesan centers in other cities, a diagnostic center, dispensaries, guesthouses, schools and the building complex "Nazareth" -- in Tirana -- that houses the candle factory, printing house, icon atelier, restoration workshop and other church service facilities.

What is still more impressive are the many thousands of people who have been catechized and baptized, and the well-attended liturgies being celebrated in church after church.

Q: Can religion be a force for gaining peace in the Balkan region?

Forest: It is in fact a very significant force for peace already. This is of course partly thanks to the commitment of the Church to actively promote peace across religious borders, but it is also thanks to the Church's commitment to assist Albania in rebuilding its badly damaged social infrastructure, doing so always without preference or restriction.

One must also note the Church's efforts to negotiate pardon and reconciliation between individuals and groups that have been in a state of murderous enmity.

Q: Are Catholic-Orthodox relations in Albania going through a good moment?

Forest: Indeed! While they were still in print, Archbishop Anastasios made a point of using stamps Albania printed to honor Mother Teresa.

This small gesture is emblematic of the warmth the archbishop feels toward the Catholic Church and his conviction that efforts to restore unity in the Church require dialogue and cooperation animated by respect and love.

Q: Do you believe that in the international sphere there is a general disinterest regarding Albania?

Forest: Not so much disinterest as forgetfulness. Albania remains Europe's poorest country. Most roads are very poor. Many factories are in ruins.

Despite areas many of astonishing beauty, few people think of visiting as a tourist. There are enormous problems to be solved -- not only poverty and social tensions within the society, but a deeply entrenched criminal element.

Such these factors have made Albania rather a low priority for the rest of the world, though the European community has wisely made many substantial grants that are gradually strengthen the country's infrastructure.

Also, in the churches, interest is steadily rising. The Catholic Church has deep roots, notably in the north, and the Orthodox Church in the south. In both churches we must do all we can to restore the faith and relieve suffering.