By Marianne Ejdersten*
Renowned for his friendly, peaceful attitude and his inspiring speeches, nothing seems impossible for this man. He has struggled and faced a multitude of difficulties including severe illness and persecution, and he was asked to take up a new position at age 62. He committed to a country whose language and culture were unknown to him, arriving in the only officially declared atheist state, asked to rebuild the church.
In Tirana, Albania, 24 years later, he hosted the Global Christian Forum (GCF) consultation from 1-5 November. There, 150 high-level leaders and representatives of various church traditions from more than 60 countries gathered to listen and learn, and to stand in solidarity with churches and Christians experiencing discrimination and persecution in the world today.“It’s the fruit of our work together in Albania,” said Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania.
Archbishop Anastasios granted an interview to the World Council of Churches (WCC) news. This conversation took place in the archbishop’s residence in Tirana.
An apostle of peace and reconciliation, since meeting him in 1997, he is one of my greatest role models. I know, I’m merely one of many who share this. We meet in his residence office the day after his 86th birthday. He extends a warm greeting, offering Greek coffee and cakes. The welcoming room has warm colours, flowers and icons. It tells Archbishop Anastasios’s life story, one sometimes reflecting hazard. A double-glazed pane stopped a bullet that is suspended while it was in full flight toward him. It was fired by a sniper during the 1997 political upheaval that pushed predominantly Muslim Albania into chaos, nearly claiming the archbishop’s life. “I keep the window,” Archbishop Anastasios notes, “to remind me that life can end in a second. We must not waste a single day.”
Few men use their days like Archbishop Anastasios. Frail but energetic, he has spent the last 24 years overcoming immense obstacles to achieve a near-miracle in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
From Greece to Africa and Albania
Born into a religious family in Pireus, Greece on 4 November 1929, as a boy he was interested in science, but his view changed after four years of Nazi occupation of Greece. That brought fear, destruction, and the horrors of the Second World War. He realized that the only way to make sense of the suffering was to work for eternal peace; the kind that can only come from Jesus Christ. He has dedicated his life and career to fulfilling Christ’s mandate.
His official title is Archbishop of Tirana, Durres and All Albania, but Anastasios has sometimes been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All. It isn't a title he objects to. "I am everyone's archbishop. For us, each person is a brother or sister. The church is not just for itself. It is for all the people.”
During the 1990s, around 160,000 people perished in the Balkan Peninsula violence. Although the conflicts largely hinged on ethnic differences, religion played a critical role in the three-sided war that embroiled Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Muslims. The archbishop discovered soon after arriving in Albania in 1992, his role was not merely to lead the Orthodox Church in Albania. "You must bear in mind that Albania had very little experience of being an independent country and even less of freedom.” During the communist era, from 1945 to 1990, Albania, just north of Greece, became the only country in the world to prohibit all religious practice. Just the act of crossing oneself could land one in prison. Every church, mosque and synagogue was destroyed or converted to secular use as Albanians, who now number 3 million, were isolated from the rest of the world.
The archbishop recalls, “The Albanian State was created in 1912-1913. Then there were 25 years of trying to build up that state in Europe’s poorest country. In such a setting it is necessary to think in larger terms, about social development as a whole, to think not in terms of decades but centuries….We must think what it means to be free.”
If you have faith, stay and struggle
After communism collapsed, in 1991 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, decided to send Archbishop Anastasios to Albania to report on the country’s religious situation. He found 1,600 destroyed churches and only 22 elderly priests still alive of the 440 who served Albania before communism. Albanians were, however, desperate for religious freedom and many gathered for services in fields where nothing remained of their former churches except broken bells.
He saw the despair in Albanians’ faces. “I thought, who's going to help these people? Who is going to give them hope?' I said to myself, ‘If you have faith, stay and struggle. If you don’t, go home.’” So he stayed. Over the next decade, Archbishop Anastasios fought to overcome centuries of ethnic and religious hostility, to establish a new church throughout the nation.
Archbishop Anastasios underline “About 150 new churches (both large and small) have been erected, 60 churches and monasteries, designated as cultural monuments, have been renovated and restored, and 160 churches have been repaired. More than 70 buildings have been purchased, built and reconstructed to make preschools, schools, youth centres, health centers, metropolitan sees, hospitality homes, workshops, soup kitchens, etc. Altogether there have been more than 460 building projects”.
All kinds of education are crucial for the archbishop. “Education is far more than books to read and facts to memorize. The goal must be to help shape people who are not only capable intellectually or skilled in certain specializations, but motivated by respect and love rather than greed and fear,” he observes.
"God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power. Those who fear God fear nothing else."
Women and men at the seminary
Educational work to prepare men and women for service in the church became a key concern.
"We are struggling with the problem of the shortage of priests. The young generation was raised in an atheistic climate, and after that came the capitalist dream, which made many decide to go to other countries. The scent of money is very powerful. Gradually some people realize money does not bring happiness, that happiness can only come from something deeper.
"As you will have noticed, there are not only men but also women at the seminary; perhaps a third of the enrollment. It used to be the vocation of women was mainly in the home, but now they have a public life and the church must use their gifts. Women exercise another form of church service. There are many women who have graduated from the seminary and who are playing an important role in the activities of the church in Albania, diaconal works of mercy, teachers, administration, mission activity, and so forth. We would have achieved much less without them.”
The Church should be present
The archbishop emphasized that the church should be present in all areas of life. He introduced new health care, educational and developmental programmes, social and relief efforts, cultural and environmental projects along with other necessities of civilization.
He says, “In each area of life we must implant a spiritual dimension. Culture is more than technology! Most of all it is respect for the dignity of people. Culture requires respect for God's creation. Where it exists, there is beauty.”
A first priority for the archbishop is children and young people. “We have opened many kindergartens, nurseries and schools. My only regret is that we cannot help more young people. We do what we can with the staff and space we can afford.”
When Anastasios was ordained, he went to Africa. “In the evening of the day I was ordained a priest in May 1964, I flew to Uganda, which I had thought about so often and with such longing. I had thought that Africa would be my home for the remainder of my life. But malaria ended that dream…..It was my first experience of being close to death. I remember the phrase that formed in my thoughts when I thought I would die: 'My Lord, you know that I tried to love you.' Then I slept and the next day I felt well! There was a second attack when I went to Geneva to attend a mission conference. Fortunately doctors there were able to identify the illness and knew how to treat it. When I was well enough to leave the hospital they said I must forget about returning to Africa.”
The Archbishop returned to his studies, but did not forget Africa. With a scholarship, he pursued post-graduate studies in Germany at the University of Hamburg, from 1965-1969. He specialized in the History of Religion, but also studied ethnology, missiology, and African studies. His dissertation was, “The Spirits Mbandwa and the Frame of their Cult: A Research on the African Religion of Western Uganda.”
Local and global ecumenical movement
In 1969, the WCC called Anastasios to accept a position in the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism as the “Secretary for Research and Relation with the Orthodox Churches.” He later became the first Orthodox moderator of the Commission for Mission and Evangelism (1984-91), presiding over the San Antonio World Mission Conference (1989).
Then in January 1991, the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided to re-establish the Church of Albania. Two months after his 61st birthday, Anastasios received a phone call from the Patriarchate of Constantinople asking if he would go to Albania to see if anything was left of the Orthodox Church. It not originally intended as a permanent assignment, only to see if and how the local church could be revived.
He says, “Only later was I asked by authorities of the Patriarchate if I would be willing to accept election as Archbishop of Albania. After a period of reflection and prayer, I was open, on three conditions. The first was that it must be clear that this was the wish of the Orthodox in Albania. Second, that this was the desire of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Third, that the Albanian authorities would accept this decision. Otherwise the situation of the church would only be more difficult. My answer was much less than yes! I was like Jonah, looking for a path of escape! But inside my prayer was, 'Your will be done.’”
He explained, "The Orthodox people were indeed pressing me to stay. How could I refuse them? How could I say I had a different plan for the rest of my life? They were praying for me every day. Remaining in Albania would mean putting aside all the ideas I had about what I would be doing with the remainder of my life. I had in mind a peaceful retirement in Greece, giving lectures at the university and writing books.”
"It has been important for me not only to learn Albanian but to take care that whenever I say something I say it not just in a way that can be understood but say it well”.
One of Albania's most serious investors and job creators
Language skills, education and church buildings are important for the archbishop: “Church building often involves more than just a structure for worship. When we build or restore a church or monastery, often we also have to rebuild the road.”
"With all our construction projects, the church has become a significant factor in the economic development of Albania. We are one of Albania's most serious investors and job creators."
Anastasios's most ambitious project, which he views as the capstone of his mission in Albania, was to rebuild an Orthodox cathedral in Tirana to replace one demolished by the communist government. The name he chose for the cathedral embodies what he has accomplished for the Orthodox Church in Albania and the Albanian people – resurrection.
Ecumenical vision beyond a Balkan
The Archbishop also talks of his ecumenical vision “Beyond a Balkan, European perspective, we are trying to respectfully and lovingly embrace the whole church and the entire world that Christ himself has raised, redeemed and enlightened by His cross and resurrection. The ecumenical vision offers a special power, endurance and perspective for every local and concrete situation. Besides this, the emphasis on the ecumenicity and catholicity of the church, and the gaze on the incarnate word of God in the Holy Spirit, offers to the Orthodox thought and conscience an open horizon with boundless majesty.”
Interfaith dialogue, he pointed out, is not simply exchanges of words. "It helped being in the World Council of Churches' committee for dialogue with other religions, but what we did was academic. Here you learn that often the best dialogue is in silence; it is love without arguments."
We could keep talking for hours but more media wait outside. The archbishop concludes with a smile: “You can only do your job with love and humility! I feel I’m still like a student or like a missionary for justice and peace!
Archbishop Dr Anastasios, (born Anastasios Yannoulatos, Greek: Αναστάσιος Γιαννουλάτος, Albanian: Anastas Janullatos, 4 November 1929) is Archbishop of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania and as such the primate and Head of the Holy Synod of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania, is professor emeritus of the National University of Athens and honorary member of the Academy of Athens. He has served as primate of Albania since 1992. In this capacity, he reconstructed the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania from ruins and initiated important contributions in healthcare, development work, emergency relief, culture, ecology and peace-making. From 1984-1991, Anastasios was moderator of the WCC's Commission on World Mission and Evangelism; from 2004- 2013 President of the World Council of Churches, from 1981 to 1990, he was the acting archbishop of East Africa, where he organized and developed the Orthodox Mission in East Africa; and from 1983-1986, dean of the Theological School at the University of Athens. Honorary President of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.
Rebuilding a smashed church in Albania (WCC press release of 23 December 2015)
*Marianne Ejdersten is director of Communication at the World Council of Churches