The Church in Albania – The Irish Family

from Ottoman control to Communism to?..

TIRANA- An old Albanian saying goes as follows: ‘Where the sword is, there lies religion’ . Thus, under the long years of Ottoman rule, up to 70% of Albanians converted to Islam, escaping the onerous taxes and dhimmitude second-class citizenship imposed on non-Muslims. Before then, Albania’s strategic location on the marches between western and eastern Christianity saw its people divide into largely northern Catholics and southern Orthodox.

St Pauls Cathedral, Tirana (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Later, under the Stalinism-on-steroids Hoxha regime, Albania was declared the world’s first atheist state, and the Catholic Church felt the force of Tirana’s totalitarian jackboot even more than Albania’s other major faiths. As Hoxha himself said: “The Muslim religion..[..]..was not as serious an obstacle..[..]…as the Catholic”, and as the Archbishop of Tirana-Durres Rrok Kola Mirdita told this reporter “priests were called Vatican spies, Hoxha feared us, many were executed”.

In 1951, just one year after Blessed Teresa of Calcutta – one of Albania’s two national icons – was setting up her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, Hoxha severed the Albanian Church link to the Vatican, and between 1967 and 1990, no (public) Catholic Mass took place. By 1953, just 10 Catholic clerics remained active in the country, and as Archbishop Mirdita says “if you were caught even making the Sign of the Cross, you would get 7 years imprisonment and hard labour”

After a Communist interlude as bizarrely-autarkic as it was brutally-oppressive, Albania is now looking west, sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and opening its economy to foreign investors, though serious issues remain with corruption and Albania’s transnationalised people-and drug-trafficking mafia.

“Albania is geographically European, and she has to come back” – Archbishop Mirdita on the country’s likely NATO accession and longer-term aspirations to join the European Union. But with religious devotion much-attenuated after the brutal Hoxha era, it is secularised apathy as much as its cultural pluralism that marks Albania out as a proto-western country, and constitutes a serious challenge to religion in general.

Hoxha’s atheist sword added non-belief to Albania’s four official faiths – Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Sunni Islam, and Sufi-Islam Bektashism, with the US State Dept estimating that over 60% of Albanians as non-practising

But as the Archbishop pointed out, “it is the generation born and bred under Communism that are indifferent to religion. We have a reversal of the European experience, in that at Mass you see more younger people than older.”

Hope for the future, and Mirdita feels that Catholicism in Albania has asteely resolve forged from centuries of alien rule and the dark years of Communist oppression. Northern clans remained steadfast in the faith for hundreds of years, in spite of Muslim domination, and even Hoxha’s agricultural collectivization schemes did not fragment the faith and family bonds that sustained belief in the northern hills close to Mirdita’s birthplace across the border in Montenegro.

The Archbishop estimates that Catholics constitute 12-15% of the population, and a construction boom is bringing Catholic workers south to Tirana, enlarging Mirdita’s diocese to 50,000 members, up from 1200 in 1944, when the last official statistics on Albanian religious demographics were collated. However high land prices mean that building new churches remains a challenge, and the Archbishop worries that vocations are being hindered by Albania’s high emigration rates, with over one million people leaving the country since 1990.

As for inter-religious relations, Mirdita says “things are good, but perhaps could be better. We set up an interreligious council. But I think the harmony here is deep-rooted and traditional, and the relative peace between different groups here could serve as a model for the region.”

Just down the street from the Archbishop’s office beside St Paul’s Cathedral, stand statues of Blessed Teresa, and Albania’s other national figure, Skanderbeg, the 15th Century general who fought the Ottoman invaders and was granted Papal title for his efforts. Tirana’s glossy new international airport is named after Mother Teresa, and a bronze statue of the future saint stands close to the Tirana Sheraton. Thus the ongoing prominence of two non-Muslim icons in Albania’s national hagiography perhaps lends credence to the words of Vasho Pashka, a 19th Century poet who said that “the religion of Albanians is Albanianism”

Archbishop Mirdita disagrees: “Mother Teresa’s international renown and winning of a Nobel prize was an immense boost to national pride, at a time when Albania was suffering, and the country seen as something sinister in the eyes of the world. Her example truly unites us all, but for Catholics of course there is that added dimension, she is beatified, and her holiness remains exemplary to us.

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