By Peter Kenny*
In 1967, the Albanian government, under despotic leader Enver Hoxha, began closing down all religious institutions in the country, declaring Albania the world’s first officially atheist state.
By the time communism was crumbling worldwide — around 1990 — there simply was no church in this southern European nation of three million people.
Yet the history of churches there has been one of remarkable resilience. As Rev. Ali Kurti, president of the Evangelical Alliance of Albania, pointed out, Albanian churches experienced persecution for hundreds of years under the Ottoman empire, yet they had been able to rise as an example for the “suffering churches”.
In 1992, Archbishop Anastasios came from neighbouring Greece to begin his work as Orthodox Archbishop of Tirana, Durrës and all Albania. The Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania has since experienced a resurrection under the inspired leadership of Archbishop Anastasios. Albania’s Orthodox Church is a member of the Conference of the European Churches (CEC) and the World Council of Churches. Archbishop Anastasios served as CEC vice-president from 2004-2013, as one of eight WCC presidents in 2006.
Now Christianity is thriving in Albania, with orthodoxy, Catholicism and evangelism, all recognized by the government, although European secularism is also a force. Catholic and Muslim groups also operate numerous state-licensed schools as does the Orthodox Church which also runs day care centres, religious schools, professional institutes and a university.
Most Albanian Muslims are secular Sunni with a significant Bektashi Shia minority.
Archbishop Anastasios, in a sermon, said, “During the course of the 20 centuries that have passed, the church of Christ has endured many trials; it has faced persecutions in a variety of forms and intensities. Ultimately, however, it remained resolute.”
His homily — delivered at the Global Christian Forum (GCF) consultation entitled “Discrimination, Persecution and Martyrdom: Following Christ Together” in Albania on 1-5 November — was made before Cardinal Kurt Koch, Pope Francis's representative on ecumenical relations; WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fyske Tveit; his counterpart from the World Evangelical Alliance, Rev. Efraim Tendero; and Rev. David Wells representing the Pentecostal World Fellowship.
Although Catholics make up only a relatively small minority of the population, the great majority of them are young. Overall, the average age of the Albanian population is just 30 years, so the churches are full of young people.
A strong message of hope came from Catholic Archbishop of Shkodër, Angelo Massafra, who explained during the consultation how Christianity rose again in once-atheist Albania.
Massafra spoke about 4 November 1990 during the time religion had been banned. He recounted that Simon Jubani, a priest just released from prison, decided to say a mass at the time Christians commemorate their saints and those who have departed.
Jubani decided to defy the authorities. On that day in 1990, he said mass at a cemetery chapel spared from destruction. After no repercussions from the authorities, he further defied orders not to hold another mass on 11 November. The ringing of a church bell, hidden and kept intact by a Muslim family followed. Tens of thousands of people attended a mass at what is the St. Anthony's Church, defying compulsory atheism.
In modern Albania, the international airport and a square in Tirana are named after Mother Teresa who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in India when she was alive.
Today nuns from Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata come from India and Africa to work in Albania, where “Nene Teresa” was born, in a new pattern of Christian missionary work that is taking place in Europe.
*Peter Kenny is a journalist and communications consultant. He writes for Ecumenical News, The Wall Street Journal, The Star in Johannesburg and other media organizations.