Category Archives: Albania

Serbian Nuns Learn Language of Albanian Muslims

iconographer nun at Sokolica monastery in Kosovo

 

 

 

 

 

 

The eight nuns of a Serbian Orthodox monastery, Sokolica, in religiously polarized Kosovo have decided to learn Albanian so they can talk to Albanian Muslims who come to pray at an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary.

Muslims from all over Kosovo flock to the Sokolica monastery because they believe its 14th-century sculpture of the Sokolika Virgin can cure deaf-mute children and help childless couples become pregnant. The famous sculpture is adorned with gold necklaces, bracelets and strings of pearls from grateful pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim. “It cures not only their people but also our people,” said a Muslim neighbor.

The monastery, surrounded by the Muslim village of Boletin, is located in the mountains that overlook the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

“When Muslims ask how to pray, we tell them to pray in their own language and in the way they are taught to,” the 67-year-old head of the monastery, Mother Makarija, told Agence France Presse. “We let them praise their Allah as we do our God.”

“Our door is open for all who come, both Christian and Muslims. If Muslims think our sacred sculpture can help them, then they are welcome,” said Mother Makarija.

“But speaking the languages of neighbors is a must,” she said. “I don’t want our sisters to talk to the neighbors and Albanians who visit the monastery in English but in Albanian. I am always looking for [Albanian] textbooks. I may be too old for it but my nuns must learn Albanian.” (The abbess speaks Serbian, English, German and Greek.)

Local villagers tell how the abbess braved heavy fighting during the war to take a pregnant Boletin woman to deliver her baby at a Serbian hospital in Mitrovica. “It was dangerous even for her, despite the fact that she was a nun,” said Besim Boletini, who lives next door to the monastery.

Muslim villager Mustafa Kelmendi, 67, said Mother Makarija had saved his son Basri from Serb paramilitaries twice. “The war brought chaos … However she did not allow Serb forces to stay in the convent even when fighting was going on in the area.”

The nuns are well known as fresco painters and iconographers. “That is our main income,” said Mother Makarija.

 

Orthodox Roots, Bektashi Neighbors: Interview with Metropolitan John of Korca

Metropolitan John of Korca
Metropolitan John of Korca

Reprinted with permission from the journal Road to Emmaus

Your Eminence, one of the most remarkable things about the Albanian Orthodox Church is that you have been able to co-exist peaceably with your Moslem neighbors, which is a paradox for many westerners. The Albanian Orthodox worked hard to provide medical care, food, and housing to both communities during the Kosovo conflict—and that effort continues—but I wonder if there aren’t some other un-seen affinities at work between you, contributing to this balance?

Yes, there are. I think, as Christians, we have a strong dogmatic base for that. We see every human being created as an icon of God, and as the Orthodox Church we have tried to emphasize this to our people. But also there are many other unnoticed affinities, such as family, cultural, and historical ties. For example, respect for St. Cosmas of Aitolia is still very widespread among Albanian Christians and Muslims alike. During St. Cosmas’ life, southern Albania and northwestern Greece were one region—Ottoman ruled Epirus—and the Albanian ruler Ali Pasha, who governed Epirus in the early 19th century, had known the saint personally. He was a Bektashi Moslem, and even now the Bektashi use the prophecies of St. Cosmas, although they call him by another name. We Albanian Orthodox call him Shen Kosma (St. Cosmas). They call him Choban Baba. Choban means “shepherd,” and Baba, “father.”

The Bektashi also revere the saints who lived long ago, like St. Spiridon (whom they call Sari Salltik) and who is enshrined nearby on Corfu. Many saints are commonly venerated in the Orthodox and Bektashi Albanian communities. This feeling for the Christian saints was one of the reasons why the tyrant Ali Pasha ordered a church to be built for St. Cosmas over his relics.

There are many stories in southern Albania about St. Cosmas that have been handed down for centuries. Every village in my region has its story—when he passed by, what he said, that he sent a letter. Many are embellished, but there is still something in them.

Can you tell us any?

Yes. Several years ago I was in an Albanian village where there was a beautiful house that had fallen into ruin. The last male of this house died in 1944, and they still tell the story that when St. Cosmas came to the village he stayed in this house. He was respected, welcomed and given hospitality. In the morning he said, “I hope that your lineage will disappear before a certain time comes.” They said, “Are you cursing us, Father?” “I am blessing you,” he said, “because there will come a time that will be called ‘the time governed by women and young people,’ when it will be better not to be than to be.”

And this is like it is now—I go into most houses and ask the husband something and the wife answers, or the young daughters or sons from a corner. The husband and father often has nothing to say. As it happens, the last male of this family died in 1944. But “a time governed by women and young people” should not be understood only literally, but in the sense that it was used by the Fathers of the Church. For example, the Holy Mother Sarah said to the brothers, “It is I who am a man, you who are women.” With that she wanted to say that true manhood is not only in the differences of sex, but in character.

I also heard a story in Konitsa, Greece, that when St. Cosmas passed by the future home of Albania’s communist dictator, Hoxha, in Gjirokastra, where two centuries later he was born and raised, he said, “An anti-Christ will be born here.”

I’ve heard this story many times. It is difficult now to say if all of these stories are true or not, but sometimes it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in the sense that what people want to emphasize is St. Cosmas’ gift of prophecy, that history is under the control of the Lord, so everything that happened to Albania under Hoxha was foreseen.

There is, of course, the famous story among us of how Ali Pasha was arrested by Kurt Pasha when the Pasha governed Berat. Ali was young then, sixteen or so. St. Cosmas came, and when he entered the prison he said, “Now is coming Ali, Ali Pasha.” He told him that he would become pasha, but that he would go to Istanbul with a red beard, predicting Ali’s death by beheading.

All of these stories were told and retold, and particularly about Ali Pasha because he was the pasha. He was a cruel tyrant, of course, but some of the others who were considered revolutionary “heroes” by the Greeks were just as cruel. I know these stories because on my mother’s side I am from Christian Souli. The family moved from Souli when it was destroyed, and the stories told about these Greek chieftains were no less cruel than those told of Ali Pasha. Those were the times, and that was what it meant to be a leader.

If, as you say, the pashas and even the heroes were cruel, why then was St. Cosmas allowed to preach and function in these areas, with his very Christian messages of love of God and justice to your fellow man?

The Moslem rulers, if they were Albanians, were not necessarily strict Moslems—their positions were motivated by a personal desire for political power, not religious ideology. Also, many of them had mixed allegiances—they still had cousins and friends who were Christians, or koumbari.

In Albania, it was a tradition until recently that many Moslems had Christian koumbari and some Christians had Moslems as koumbari. These are considered sacred ties. Strictly speaking, this wasn’t allowed, of course, but many of these families wanted to maintain these relationships, and sometimes spiritual kinship ties were made for political reasons. Also, as I mentioned earlier, many of the Albanians were Bektashi Moslems and they had traditions in common with Christians.

Weren’t the Bektashis originally Christians themselves who retained elements of their former faith?

Yes, to some degree, but it isn’t quite that simple. The Bektashi originated in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. In Asia Minor there were always groups of Christian gnostics circulating different traditions, and this heavily influenced the Bektashi. The Bektashi still use the Gospel of St. John and venerate almost all of the Orthodox saints.

Did they arise at the same time in Albania?

No. The Bektashi order isn’t native to Albania, but many Albanians are closer to it than other forms of Islam. When the Turks arrived, becoming Bektashi was one way in which people didn’t have to live under the social pressure or pay the special taxes applied to non-Muslims under the Ottomans, but being Bektashi, they could still keep icons and other traditions. The Bektashi in Albania have been here for centuries, and they are about 15 to 20% of the population.

Albania is now the center of Bektashism, and the head of the Bektashi order is here in Tirana, not in Turkey, because Mustafa Kemal Attaturk exiled the Bektashi from Turkey in the 1930’s. Attaturk himself was Albanian and became president of Turkey at the time of the Young Turk revolution, suppressing the Dervish orders and others as well. The head of the Bektashi order at that time was also Albanian, and he moved here because it was safer to be part of a large Bektashi population far from Istanbul. There were some Bektashis in Crete, but afterwards they joined the Orthodox Church again. There were others in Bulgaria and the Balkans, but most are in Albania now.

How close are they to the Shi’ite and Sunni Moslems?

They are not Shi’ite or Sunni. Their belief is more a combination of Christian influence mixed with the Islamic thought of Rumi and other teachers of Asia Minor. The Bektashi don’t have written doctrine, and rules and belief differ, depending on what an individual has been taught and whose influence he has come under.

Do the Bektashi have associations with Sufism?

Yes, but they are more open to Christianity, and we have outward similarities. For example, they have an ecclesiastical structure, they have monasteries—not just mosques or tekkes—but real monasteries. They also have three levels of church hierarchy: Dervish, which means a helper, a deacon; Baba, which is the “father,” the priest; and then the Gjysh, which can be translated literally as “grandfather,” who has the function of bishop because he can ordain the others. They have something similar to a diocesan structure and the whole area under the Gjysh is called the Gjyshata. They also have a kind of baptism; to baptize they use water mixed with the essence of roses, and a kind of communion service with bread, wine, and cheese. They also have something that is unique in the Moslem world: they have confession, and a prayer is said by the clergy over the sinner asking God for forgiveness. So, there is a strong influence here of Christianity.

Now that Orthodoxy is being revived in Albania, is there an interest among the Bektashi?

In general there is an openness towards Christianity, and mosty towards Orthodoxy, because we have those common elements. When the Bektashi come to an Orthodox church they don’t feel they are in a foreign place. This helps. As I said, we have many of the same saints, although we sometimes use different names for them, and we both circulate the same stories of the saints and their icons. They do use icons.

I understand you are a convert to Orthodoxy. Was your own family Bektashi?

Yes. Although most of my family is back in the Orthodox Church, I still have cousins who are Bektashi. When you speak of people being Bektashi, however, this can be misinterpreted—in Albania you may be referring to a region under their influence, but this doesn’t mean that everyone is a practicing Bektashi. In Bektashism, people only take part in the gatherings if they are initiated. Their baptism is a type of initiation and few besides those who go through it know what happens there, they keep it secret. Perhaps this secrecy is also the influence of the gnostics. The part of Asia Minor where the Bektashi were founded was one of the most renowned in the world for gnosticism, and their use of the Gospel of St. John is another sign of their origins. Most of the gnostics also use the Gospel of St. John.

Some Bektashi claim to have a famous, so-called “secret” doctrine descending from Adam or Seth (the third son of Adam) depending on whom you talk to. This is another common characteristic of gnosticism. All of this was eventually overlaid by an Islamic face. Because they lived in places where Islam had risen to power, they didn’t publicly differentiate themselves from the other Moslems. However, their doctrine is completely different.

How do the Bektashi look at the Lord? Is it a strictly Moslem view?

It depends. Because they don’t have a dogma, interpretations differ. You can read things in Sufi texts by Al-Ghazali or Jelalluddin Rumi, (who were very close in spirit to the Bektashis) that could be scandalous for a Moslem. A modern-day Bektashi could be a scandal for other Moslems in the same way. For example, the Bektashi greet each other on Christmas. They also come to church on Pascha and proclaim, “The Lord is Risen!”

For a Shi’ite or Sunni Moslem this would be impossible, so we can see the Bektashi are more open. In the case of Albania this has been a benefit, because it means that we don’t have a heavy block of Sunni. The Bektashi are also more tolerant, they emphasize that all people are the same. You can easily see the heavy influence of Christianity, particularly if you read the books of Rumi; every third or fourth story will be about a priest.

I remember that in Rumi’s stories, but I thought they were just translating imam into the English “priest.”

No, it really is “priest.”

There are other influences on the Bektashi as well. Some say there is even a Buddhist influence, although I doubt this, because the particular doctrine they are talking about, the transmigration of souls, also appeared in the Balkans and in Asia Minor. Their most known adherent was the famous mathematician Pythagoras. This was not the influence of far off Buddhism, it was a belief that originated in this region and, again, had a gnostic flavor. But certainly not all Bektashi believe in transmigration.

When western people hear “Moslem” they think of what they see on television of Iran and the Middle East, but things here are different. There were not only gnostic influences, but there is a kind of crypto-Christianity among the Albanian Moslems in general. Sometimes they are aware of it and sometimes they are not. But many know that they were Christians before the Turks. For example, the head of the Moslems here, the Kryemyfti—his name is Sabri Kochi. His last name, Kochi, is Albanian for Constantine. Their family names are still often Christian.

So, they might feel closer to Christians than they do to Arab or Indonesian Moslems.

Culturally, yes. Their ethics and psychology are closer. There may be a danger in the future if many students go to study in these Arab countries and are indoctrinated to some degree into more strict forms of Islam, but this outlook doesn’t represent the general view.

The Prophetic Role of the Church

To move on, the Church here is attempting the immense task of reaching out to all of Albanian society, and I believe that you once quoted a sermon by St. John Chrysostom in which he said, “If all of you in this church were Christians, there would be no more pagans in the world.” That was a direct hit to all of us.

Yes. He was right. And others have said the same. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I would have become a Christian if I’d ever met one.” Once a holy man was asked, “Why in the first centuries did Christianity spread so fast, and not now?” He answered, “In the first century, Christianity was preached by Christians.”

If we really understand this we won’t be so quick to see the faults of others. The famous “Mea culpa” is a basic doctrine of Christianity. St. Seraphim said, “If you receive the Holy Spirit, thousands around you will be saved.” We are not saving thousands because we aren’t saving ourselves. This is the essential thing, and it helps people understand humanity in another light, the light that gives love rather than hatred.

Most of the experience I’ve had of Christian fanatics is that they have a problem with belief themselves. They doubt and they try to repress every doubt that arises around them. Some of the most rigid Orthodox I’ve met, particularly from ex-Communist countries, are those who were previously members of the secret police, etc., because they cannot live without hatred.

Their identity, unfortunately, is a negative identity because it is built from this hatred. They say, “I am against this and that.” They don’t say what Christianity really is. They want an enemy they can point to. I’m not saying this to judge them, but it is a tragedy.

Perhaps this happens on every level of humanity, but here it is obvious. There are few people who can solve this puzzle and say, “I am.” Only if you participate in the true “I AM” can you say, “I am.” Instead, it is usually “I am not…” Only the Lord has the right to say, “I AM,” but everyone who joins Him takes on this identity.

That is something we’ve also seen in Russia and Serbia with the upsurge of extreme nationalists. These people often use Orthodoxy as a banner, but there is no Christian spirit behind it and it is frightening because simple people become confused and think, well, “I really should support this group because they are “Orthodox.”

Yes, but this abuse has always gone on. These people prey on the religious feelings of others because they know how much power religion has and they want to use it for their own benefit. For example, in Yugoslavia—Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia—most of the people living in these areas are atheists, and the so-called “religious war” simply doesn’t exist. I have coined a phrase, “a religious war of atheists,” because all the people involved in these wars are atheists. I know them personally. They are human beings, of course, but religion is something they use, not what they believe. It is very hard to escape from that.

The Orthodox Church in Albania has spoken out clearly against the misuse of religion. I believe one of the strongest voices is that of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, whose motto has been, “the oil of religion must never be used to ignite conflicts but to soothe hearts and heal wounds.”

In Kosovo, the western press bought into appearances. It was always the Orthodox Serbs versus the Moslem Albanians.

It’s easier to think like that. To try to figure out the real reasons is too complex and confusing. They wanted a quick explanation.

Do you believe Kosovo was a war over culture and territory rather than religion?

It was an ethnic war. When, for example, either side destroyed mosques or churches it was not because of religion. They were an ethnic symbol.

Like the decades of violence in Northern Ireland, and how obvious it seems that these aren’t devout Catholics and Protestants fighting over religion.

Yes. Do you know the joke… someone asks an Irishman, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” The Irishman answers, “I am an atheist.” “OK, but atheist Catholic or atheist Protestant?”

This is why the prophetic role of the Church is so important. The prophetic role, as the Lord Himself said, means that we are all on the cross. There is a very costly phrase in scripture, that I often quote: “Thus saith the Lord.” In general, people don’t want to hear this. They want to feel that they are “better,” so they follow false prophets and kill the real ones. If we would always speak the Lord’s words, “Thus saith the Lord,” we would be in trouble, but because we don’t like trouble, because we avoid the cross, we don’t say it. We say what other people want to hear. This has been one of the main problems of the Church. We need to fulfill that prophetic role of the Church and speak on behalf of the Lord, to repeat His words.

One of the things that first woke me up to the resurrection of the Albanian Church was when, during the Kosovo conflict, feeling was running high in the West against the Orthodox Serbs oppressing the Moslem Kosovars. But then, little bits of coverage started slipping out about the Orthodox Church in Albania taking in hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Moslem refugees. It blew the preconceptions apart. Albania may be the first country in the modern world where the Orthodox Church has reached out not only to their own poor and unfortunate, but to their “enemies.”

What advice would you give to Orthodox converts about Christian life? In the West we tend to convert eagerly and read the early church fathers, or lives of saints like St. Seraphim, but often our Orthodoxy is a private affair and doesn’t touch our neighbors, our city or our country, at least not as I see the Albanian Church affecting things here.

First, as Christians, we shouldn’t have enemies, because having enemies and being a Christian at the same time is impossible.

Secondly, I joke many times (and this is a joke) that reading about St. Seraphim causes more damage than help. I say this because modern Orthodox often have a false St. Seraphim—which is a reflection of the fact that each of us creates a kind of pseudo-Orthodox self which really has nothing to do with us. For example, a prayer rope in one hand and a girlfriend holding the other, while we talk about St. Seraphim of Sarov. There is nothing in common with St. Seraphim here.

People don’t begin to understand St. Seraphim, they see only his glorification. They want to read about him being surrounded by light, but they don’t stop to think about what it meant to pray a thousand days and nights on a rock. This is a kind of false identification. We identify ourselves with something that doesn’t exist and then we judge others from this lofty viewpoint, forgetting that we are worse than them. We don’t try to save ourselves.

The famous Rabbi Zusya used to say, “God will not judge me because I was not Moses, He will judge me because I was not Zusya.” These people will not be judged because they are not St. Seraphim of Sarov. They will be judged because they were not real.

Everyone is looking for a place where they can feel secure, but this is only in the other world. The Monastery of Chora, in Constantinople, was dedicated to one of the names of Christ, “The Land of the Living.” This land exists, but it is not the pseudo-land of spirituality that we create in our imaginations.

You have been quoted as saying, “The Church doesn’t exist to make individuals, but to make persons. An individual is in a state of separation.” Later, when you were asked about the Church’s motive in offering English classes to young Albanians, you replied, “It’s not that we manipulate others into belief through our projects. We are trying to help young people see certain possibilities and certain paths. Our task is to guard their freedom so they can choose their own path.” Those two ideas seem to work together. Freedom and the individual.

Yes, and this is why we need unity—because we are different. Artificial systems of unity—communism, socialism, fascism—destroy the person. They attempt to make people the same, and use force to make them act the same. But now in the affluent West there is something even more dangerous than this. It is a kind of uniformity from inside oneself. People volunteer to be uniform. Often, before you even ask a person from one of these countries their opinion, you already know what he will answer. The same remarks, the same attitudes and complaints. This destroys the personality.

When we talk about personhood we mean an individual in relation to others, never in isolation. You can’t be a Christian alone. Onos Christianos, nomos Christianos, is a famous phrase. Between the community and the individual, only freedom and love can keep a balance. As Aristide Briant, the French politician, said about the famous classical painting in the Louvre of the embodied graces of Gratitude and Goodness embracing, “The poor things, they meet so rarely.” Freedom and love are the same.

But in critiquing modern life, I don’t want to go to extremes like Kierkegaard who said, “The last Christian died on the Cross.” The Lord says we must walk the narrow path, and this is not so easy. IC

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 63 / Winter 2012

News – Pascha 2011 / IC 60


 

Serbian Nuns Learn Language of Albanian Muslims

iconographer nun at Sokolica monastery in Kosovo

The eight nuns of a Serbian Orthodox monastery, Sokolica, in religiously polarized Kosovo have decided to learn Albanian so they can talk to Albanian Muslims who come to pray at an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary.

Muslims from all over Kosovo flock to the Sokolica monastery because they believe its 14th-century sculpture of the Sokolika Virgin can cure deaf-mute children and help childless couples become pregnant. The famous sculpture is adorned with gold necklaces, bracelets and strings of pearls from grateful pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim. “It cures not only their people but also our people,” said a Muslim neighbor.

The monastery, surrounded by the Muslim village of Boletin, is located in the mountains that overlook the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

“When Muslims ask how to pray, we tell them to pray in their own language and in the way they are taught to,” the 67-year-old head of the monastery, Mother Makarija, told Agence France Presse. “We let them praise their Allah as we do our God.”

“Our door is open for all who come, both Christian and Muslims. If Muslims think our sacred sculpture can help them, then they are welcome,” said Mother Makarija.

“But speaking the languages of neighbors is a must,” she said. “I don’t want our sisters to talk to the neighbors and Albanians who visit the monastery in English but in Albanian. I am always looking for [Albanian] textbooks. I may be too old for it but my nuns must learn Albanian.” (The abbess speaks Serbian, English, German and Greek.)

Local villagers tell how the abbess braved heavy fighting during the war to take a pregnant Boletin woman to deliver her baby at a Serbian hospital in Mitrovica. “It was dangerous even for her, despite the fact that she was a nun,” said Besim Boletini, who lives next door to the monastery.

Muslim villager Mustafa Kelmendi, 67, said Mother Makarija had saved his son Basri from Serb paramilitaries twice. “The war brought chaos … However she did not allow Serb forces to stay in the convent even when fighting was going on in the area.”

The nuns are well known as fresco painters and iconographers. “That is our main income,” said Mother Makarija.

 

Bishop Applauds End of Death Penalty in Illinois

Bishop Demetrios of MokissosWhen Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed legislation on March 9 ending the death penalty in his state, among those in attendance was Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago.

The Bishop praised the governor’s decision to sign the bill, which commuted the sentences of fifteen death row inmates.

Bishop Demetrios said, “This is not only a political and legal achievement, but a spiritual triumph of the conscience for all those opposed to capital punishment…. On behalf of the leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, Metropolitan Iakovos, and all our faithful, we may give thanks for this major change in public policy. Yet the struggle for justice and the sanctity of all life is not over. Illinois is just one of sixteen states that have abolished the death penalty. There is much work to be done in our nation and, indeed, around the world.”

Bishop Demetrios was the spiritual advisor to the last death row inmate in Illinois, Andrew Kokaraleis, executed in 1999.

Since that time he has worked tirelessly as an advocate in the movement to end the death penalty. He noted his hopes for moratoriums in Indiana and Missouri as well.

 

Russian Church Seeks to Reduce Abortion Rate

Russian women who feel driven by dire financial need to abort their babies may soon have help in choosing another option.

Patriarch Kirill has proposed several measures to reduce Russia’s high abortion rate, one of which is to give financial aid to women driven to abortion by poverty.

Among other measures, Kirill urged the Ministry of Health and Social Development to embrace a guiding principle “that makes preservation of pregnancy a priority task for the doctor and bans medical initiatives on its interruption.”

Other policy suggestions included a two-week waiting period after signing an “informed consent” document, networks of orphanages for mothers in great need, and crisis pregnancy centers with religious representatives in every hospital.

 

Pan-Orthodox Meeting in Switzerland Fails

In late February a meeting was convened at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Chambesy, Switzerland to seek consensus on preparations for a pan-Orthodox council, but the meeting ended after four days without obtaining its objectives.

Diptychs, a term that describes the order in which local Orthodox churches commemorate each other at services, was one of the issues blocking plans for what would be the first church council in 1,200 years.

A leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church cited its founding in the fifth century in explaining why his church insists in demanding greater recognition.

If the Georgian church agrees to remain in ninth place in the diptychs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and most other Orthodox churches, said Metropolitan Theodore of Akhaltsikhe, “it means that we cross out our entire history. That is why we cannot agree with this under any circumstances.”

Another area of tension is the relationship between Constantinople and Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox Church in the world, chafes at any suggestion that the Patriarch of Constantinople, also known as Ecumenical Patriarch, is comparable to the pope.

Both Moscow and Constantinople agree that Orthodoxy needs to streamline procedures for making statements and granting independence but are at odds how this is to be done.

“This is exactly why the Catholic Church had the Second Vatican Council, because it clarified many questions,” said Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who represented Constantinople at Chambesy.

“It’s not because the Catholic Church had its synod that we have got to have ours, but I think everyone agrees to the need for a clear unanimous position of our church. We cannot just be preparing for 50 years and not come to an agreement.”

Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, a representative of the Russian church at Chambesy, said that statements that are presented as the unified position of Orthodoxy should not come across as solely the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

“In order for the Ecumenical Patriarch to speak on behalf of all the churches, there needs to be prior consultation to exchange opinions,” he said.

Another issue is granting autocephaly. Metropolitan Emmanuel said the procedure for granting independence discussed at Chambesy would have the Ecumenical Patriarch proclaim autocephaly and sign a tomos (a declaration of independence) that would then be forwarded for signing by primates of all the other churches. But not all churches, he said, agree with the form the signatures would take. Balashov said Moscow has no qualms with the Ecumenical Patriarch signing first, but that discussion arose over whether his signature “should in some other way fundamentally stand out from that of all the other primates.”

 

Russian Patriarch Kirill and Cardinal Koch Meet

Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Cardinal Kurt Koch, representing the Vatican, met in Moscow behind closed doors on March 16 as a preliminary visit, anticipating the possibility of a future meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict XVI. Theological dialogue between the two churches headed the agenda.

Such a meeting, said Cardinal Koch, “must become a Christian witness to the world, and that’s why such a meeting requires very thorough participation … the qualitative content of such a meeting is immeasurably more important than the quantitative indicators.”

Kirill and Koch also discussed anti-Christian sentiment both in regions of the world where there is persecution of Christians, and also in Europe.

Koch said his visit to Russia “made a very deep impression on me.” Many Westerners, he said, “do not understand the full depth of the tragedy that befell the Russian people and the full scale of the crimes of Stalin.”

 

IOCC Launches Relief Effort in Japan

damaged church in Ishinomaki

With an initial emergency grant of $25,000, International Orthodox Christian Charities quickly began providing medicine, food and other essential items to communities in the earthquake and tsunami-damaged coastal districts of Japan. Assistance is being distributed by the Orthodox Church in Japan in cooperation with regional authorities.

Initial efforts by IOCC and the Orthodox Church in Japan will focus on an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people who have been displaced from coastal communities by the earthquake and tsunami. The Church is also working to assess the needs of people displaced from the cities of Ishinomaki, Yamada and Kesennuma, made largely inaccessible because of the damage.

“The suffering and hardship of the victims in these ruined areas is indescribably serious and severe now,” wrote Fr. Demitrios Tanaka of the Orthodox Church in Japan. “The aftershocks of this complex disaster will remain upon us for a long time. We anticipate that the really critical situation will turn up two or three months from now.”

The Orthodox Church in Japan anticipates that considerable additional assistance will be needed to aid people threatened by the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

As the Orthodox Church in Japan focused its efforts on providing assistance to people in need, it also found reason to give thanks. An Orthodox priest previously reported missing in Tohoku, Japan was found alive and safe with his wife. All of the Orthodox clergy from the East Japan Diocese of the Orthodox Church have now been accounted for and are safe.

Support also came from Orthodox churches and monasteries of the Primorsky Region on the Russian Far East, where parishes collected about 470,000 rubles ($17,000) to support the Orthodox communities of Japan which suffered from the disaster, the press service of the Vladivostok Diocese reports.

“Mercy is a characteristic feature of the citizens of the Primorsky Region,” said Archpriest Alexander Talko, head of the diocesan department for charity and social service.

 

Ukrainians Send Icon of Chernobyl Savior to Japan

As an act of support and sympathy, the Donetsk department of the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine transferred the icon of Chernobyl Savior to Japan at a ceremony held on April 5 at the National Opera and Ballet Theater in Kiev. Department head Evgeny Struzhko presented the holy image to the director of the Terada Ballet Art School, Michiko Terada, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reported on its website.

“Today we would like to be with suffering Japanese people who are living through the tragedy. It is something very close to us and so we would like to transfer the holy icon to an Orthodox Japanese church,” Struzhko said.

Christ, the Mother of God, the Archangel Michael and those who protected others after the Chernobyl catastrophe are depicted on the icon. (Interfax-Moscow)

 

First Astronaut Gagarin No Atheist

Astronaut Yuri Gagarin’s most famous words, “I don’t see any God up here,” were in fact an invention of Soviet propaganda. The 50th anniversary of the Gagarin’s space flight brought to light the news that neither Gagarin nor the famed rocket engineer Sergei Korolev were atheists.

“Yuri Gagarin baptized his elder daughter Yelena shortly before his space flight,” said Hegumen Iov Talats, rector of the Transfiguration Church in Zvyozdny Gorodok (Star City). “His family used to celebrate Christmas and Easter and keep icons in the house,” Father Iov said in an interview in the April issue of Foma magazine, an Orthodox journal. He also recalled that Gagarin urged the authorities to reconstruct Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

He added: “Sergei Korolev lost faith for some time but eventually regained it through suffering. Of course he could not make it public, but he used to attend liturgy, pray and confess. Now I am trying to find out who was his confessor.”

According to Fr. Iov, great sins are preventing people from further outer space exploration. “I was once asked why do we fail to move further on in space. I answered that it was because we have already damaged the earth. Do you want to damage the whole universe? Look what’s going on around us – robbery, murder, violence, deception. Shall we carry our wickedness into space? Therefore, God does not let us move on. While we are in the process of moral growth, we shall not go far away from the Earth.” (Interfax-Moscow)

PM Erdogan’s Help to the Patriarchate of Constantinople

The spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, Fr. Dositheos Anagnostopulos, disclosed in April that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had saved the future of the patriarchate in 2009 by offering Turkish citizenship to non-Turkish archbishops.

In an interview with The Star, Anagnostopulos said there were 12 archbishops in the patriarchate’s synod at the time, most of them very old. “But in order to become a member of this board, one has to be a Turkish citizen. If the patriarch dies one day, it seemed unlikely that a new patriarch would be elected from the board [due to the members’ age]. This danger has now passed. The prime minister attended a luncheon in Bykada in August 2009 … and said the problem will be overcome if archbishops applied to become Turkish citizens. He promised applicants would be granted citizenship.”

“After the prime minister’s call, 27 archbishops abroad submitted applications to become Turkish citizens. So far thirteen of them have been granted citizenship.”

Anagnostopulos defined the prime minister’s remarks as the “most positive moment in his lifetime.” (pravoslavie.ru/english)

 

European Churches Debate Response to Anti-Christian Violence

When Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s sole Christian cabinet minister, was assassinated in March, it was only the latest act against Christians to provoke outrage worldwide. A New Year’s Day bomb blast killed 23 Coptic Christians in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Now, church leaders in Europe are debating the best course of action to be urged on governments to counter the wave of violence.

“We’re living in globalized times, which have made many groups feel insecure about their own identity, an identity which has then become radicalized and closed rather than open to others,” said Rudiger Noll, director of the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches.

“In Europe, where religion has often been seen as a problem, public opinion hasn’t been particularly concerned about the fate of religious communities. This seems to be changing now, as false images of religion give way to a greater awareness of its contribution to the common good.”

In February, European Union foreign ministers condemned the use of terrorism “against Christians and their places of worship, Muslim pilgrims and other religious communities,” and reiterated the EU’s commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedom.

However, while welcoming the pledge, some church leaders are urging the EU’s 27 member-states to go further. In March, the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative to European institutions, Antoni Ilyin, called for a special EU center to monitor Christian rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Last year, a Brussels-based commission representing the EU’s Roman Catholic bishops, COMECE, submitted 11 policy recommendations, including the creation of a “religion unit” in the EU’s External Action Service and measures to link EU aid agreements to protection of religious rights.

“It isn’t up to churches to suggest practical action – what we’re calling for is a clear warning about the consequences of continued persecution,” explained Johanna Touzel, French spokesperson for COMECE, which has a Dutch president and bishops from Ireland and Poland as vice-presidents.

“Officials have been reluctant to mention Christians, fearing this risked ‘a clash of civilizations’ by identifying Europe with Christianity. But respect for fundamental rights is already a condition for EU aid, so concrete steps should be taken to uphold this. Now that revolutionary changes are occurring in the Arab world, Western governments have a responsibility to set some ground rules,” she said.

The Dutch-based Open Doors International reports that persecution of Christians is harshest in communist-ruled North Korea, but also listed Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen and Mauritania as among worst offenders.

The Vatican’s Agenzia Fides news agency recorded 149 separate attacks on Christians during 2010 by Hindu militants in India, while human rights campaigners in nearby Indonesia reported 46 attacks by Muslim extremists.

The Vatican’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, notes an “increased proliferation of episodes of discrimination and acts of violence.” He cites evidence that 75 percent of those “killed because of religious hatred” were Christian.

“The state must enforce its laws that fight against religious discrimination vigorously, and without selectivity,” Tomasi told the UN Human Rights Council in March. (Jonathan Luxmoore/ENI)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60

Patriarch Pavle: A Saint Who Walked

by Danny Abbott

Orthodox Christians lost a fearless bishop with the death November 15 of Patriarch Pavle, long-time leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church. A man of exceptional humility and a tireless voice for peace in the Balkans, he was widely regarded by his fellow Serbs and many others as a living saint.

Born Gojko Stojcević in Croatia, orphaned in childhood, he was raised by an aunt. He graduated from a Belgrade gymnasium, then studied at the seminary in Sarajevo. During World War II, he took refuge in the Holy Trinity Monastery in Ovcar. After the war, he worked as a construction worker in Belgrade, then entered monastic life at Blagoveštenje monastery in Ovcar where he took the name Pavle. He lectured at Prizen Seminary, then went to Athens for two years of study of the New Testament and Liturgics, writing prolifically on the latter subject.

In 1957, he was ordained archimandrite and later that year consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Raška and Prizen. At this time, he began speaking of the trouble brewing in the Balkans and of the plight of Kosovo. In 1990, he was made Patriarch. (Strips of paper with the names of three candidates were placed on the altar. Two were blown away ( his alone was left; thus his selection.)

One of the most striking indications of his commitment to ascetic life was his refusal to have or use a car. He declared he would own a car only after the last person in Kosovo had one. As a result, he was often referred to as “the saint who walks.” As Patriarch, Pavle was noted for appearing late to parish visits because he insisted on taking the bus.

In 1989, at a time when relations between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were getting more tense, he was beaten by a group of Albanians and hospitalized for several months. He refused to press charges against the assailants.

In the years of violent conflict in the Balkans, the western press, ignoring Pavle’s words and actions, often accused him of failing to speak out against unbridled Serbian nationalism.

“If we live as people of God,” he said in one widely unreported statement, “there will be room for all nations in the Balkans and in the world. If we liken ourselves to Cain who killed his brother Abel, then the entire earth will be too small even for two people. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to be always children of God and love one another.”

Pavle’s desire for inter-ethnic peace in the Balkans was evident and apparent to all who knew or met him. When Jim Forest, as secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, first met him in 1994, Pavle recalled his long-standing friendships with Jews and Muslim going back to his youth, especially when he lived in Sarajevo. He stressed his readiness “at any moment” to meet with anyone who could help bring the Balkans “a centimeter closer to peace.”

While there were Serbian clergy who were partisans in the conflicts that broke up Yugoslavia, Pavle never condoned or authorized anyone to take sides with any group shedding blood or sanctioned any priest’s blessing of anyone’s weapons. He stated in 1995, “In the context of ongoing events occurring in neighboring republics of former Yugoslavia, the blessing of weapons can only be regarded as sanctioning the use of weapons in a fratricidal war.”

On occasion he broke with the Church’s tradition of neutrality regarding the government by openly opposing Milošević.

In the early 90s, Vuk Drašković, now Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister, was among the first Serbian politicians to accuse the Milošević government of war crimes. He and his wife were badly beaten and jailed for their stand. In 1993, Pavle wrote to Milošević pleading for Drašković’s release. In 1997, the Patriarch led an anti-government march, preventing a police attack on protesting students.

In 2000, Pavle called upon Slobodan Milošević to resign. Once the Milošević-led government was removed from power, Pavle welcomed the new government.

Patriarch Pavle’s contributions to the Orthodox Church are difficult to measure. The amount of material he wrote on various topics such as liturgics and feasts could fill many books. Moreover, he oversaw a Serbian translation of the New Testament in 1984. He was able to heal the Serbian Church’s schism with the Free Serbian Orthodox Church and actively sought to heal the schism with the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

The last two years of Pavle’s life were spent in hospital while his duties were carried out by Metropolitan Amfilohije. Patriarch Pavle’s death was followed by a national three-day period of mourning.

Upon his death, condolences were sent by Pope Benedict, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and leaders representing the entire Orthodox world. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople remarked: “None in this noisy era spoke so softly and yet was heard so widely as he. None spoke less and yet said more. None in our delusional age confronted truth with such calmness as he.”

Danny Abbott received his law degree from the University of Arkansas. He is a member of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro Tennessee.

Winter Issue IC 55 2010
IN COMMUNION 55 / FEAST OF ST. BASIL THE GREAT / JANUARY 2010

Strengthening Fundamental Values

By Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durres and All Albania

Archbishop Anastasios with Albanian children

The Christians of Europe have a obligation to support the spiritual values that were born among them and in expressing their inner, deeper meaning. I would like to point out a few of these basic values.

The enhancement of any person’s dignity as a basic human right. This principle, on which the legislation of European states is founded, was based on belief formed by the Christian faith. As Berdyaev notes, “Humanism, and therefore human dignity, may be reborn only by arising from the foundation of religion…. Human dignity presupposes the existence of God.” Human dignity is based on the belief than a human being is a holy person, a creation of God personified.

Consequent to this principle is the respect for each and every human being, regardless of origin, sex, education and religious beliefs, as well as the securing of that person’s freedom. Freedom is one of the most fundamental concepts of Christianity. God, who is totally free, created man to be free and therefore responsible for his actions. Dignity, freedom and responsibility are related to each other.

As has been observed by Patriarch Bartholomew, “Our freedom is not only personal but transpersonal. As human beings we cannot be genuinely free while living in seclusion, while denying our relation with our fellow human beings. We can be genuinely free when we become part of a community of other free human beings. Freedom is not being secluded or solitary, but social.”

The biblical belief in marriage and family has shaped the principle of monogamy, which became the nucleus of European society and determined the relations between the two sexes. It enhanced and inspired fidelity and self-abnegation as a basic element of its endurance. When this basic structure is disrupted, society is driven into decline. We, the Christian people of Europe, have the right, but also the responsibility, to defend these truths, on which anything great and pure created by European civilization is based.

Each and every devout Christian is duty-bound to be a responsible citizen of his country and of Europe in general. He has to act consistently, honestly and creatively, he has to contribute to the shaping of a society of human beings, supporting justice, equality and solidarity in an ever-extending radius, beginning with the people within his nation, then embracing all the people of Europe, and expanding his concern for the predominance of these values throughout the world.

The ascetic habit of frugality, clearly prominent in the Eastern Christian Church, is becoming significant nowadays. Its cultivation could contribute to raising a bulwark against the onslaught of consumerism that threatens to overwhelm our life with the accumulation of useless things promoted as necessities.

Despite the progress and the many achievements of Western civilization, certain of man’s characteristics have remained constant through the centuries: greed, violence, arrogance, bigotry and sin in general. In our age, more specifically, our private and social lives have been disrupted with the addition of things such as drugs, AIDS, loneliness, emptiness, a lack of meaning in life. It is certain, however, that idealistic generalities and a wooden tongue that mechanically repeats words of sacred meaning cannot solve these problems. Who will revive the pulse of life? Faith is what we need and an enthusiastic support of Europe’s progress faith in man and his future. The crystal-clear source for this kind of faith remains the truth found in the Gospels.

Yet the great contribution that Christian faith has made is the principle of love; with all its breadth, depth and height, this is the concept that has been given within the Christian faith. In this concept, the emphasis is placed on forgiveness and is of particular importance. The ability to forgive annihilates enmities and leads to reconciliation between individuals and people. The inspiration that the Christian faith has provided to millions of faithful believers, enabling them to experience forgiveness and love, is amply recorded throughout history. Without love, European civilization would be deprived of impetus, strength and beauty.

Therefore, the revival and not the marginalization of the Christian faith, the experience of its essence, power and beauty will help European societies to retain their identity and develop those values that constitute the nucleus of European civilization, as well as their creative drive.

If we Christians are to remain in the spiritual vanguard of modern Europe, we must pay greater attention to a few critical matters of a more general nature.

It is imperative that we oppose all attempts to use religion as an excuse for acts of war, as well as for supporting and strengthening terrorism. In our times, religions still have influence, yet they no longer determine the decisions of political leaders and financial factors. These decisions and factors are based on different criteria and interests. At the same time, however, the lips of conflicting leaders spout religious terms invoking God. In view of this, the religious conscience is called upon to put up the necessary resistance so that religious feeling will retain its sacred role: peace, serenity, forgiveness, healing of wounds.

In the last century, the leading role in achieving social justice and protecting the poor was played in principle by the Communist movement on the basis of atheistic presumptions. In our century, we see certain Islamic groups claiming the leading role in protecting and defending the poor.

It would be one of the greatest scandals if Christians were to remain indifferent to the poor and to ally ourselves mainly with the rich and the powerful. It was Mohammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006, who pointed out that sixty percent of the Earth’s inhabitants live on only six percent of its resources. The Church has to devote itself to ministering to those in need and giving itself the example of a frugal and abstemious life.

The spiritual principles on which European civilization was founded are universal. New Europe should not withdraw into itself or cater only to its own interests. It has universal responsibilities. This ecumenical vision is a direct consequence of the Christian conscience, and is a spiritual value indisputably European.

Christians have to take initiatives toward solving the world’s problems and to be among the leaders in the struggle for the preservation of the environment and the establishment of world peace. We are envisioning a Europe which will uphold a globalization of justice and solidarity.

Those who belittle the contribution of the Christian faith in the development of Europe often invoke the total dominance of science and technology. Indeed, some of them maintain that science and technology are in conflict with faith. Yet the Christian faith, within the framework of the general respect for the freedom of the human being, also accepts the liberty to seek genuine knowledge.

It is fortunate that, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, conflict between science and theology has been avoided as much as possible. This is due to the double methodology employed by the Orthodox Fathers of the Church that is based on the ontological distinction between created and uncreated.

Christian thought points out the following: firstly, the dangers lurking behind certain scientific achievements; secondly, the limits of human knowledge; and, thirdly, the existence of another kind of knowledge. We emphasize the respect due to freedom and to the value of scientific research, but in the next phase – that of application and the use of the new knowledge – we proclaim with even greater enthusiasm the importance and the value of a different category: that of love. Love is not directly classified in the scientific field, but it has been absolutely essential in defining the limits of freedom and in developing of the fruits of science, by restricting egocentrism and by providing a genuine communication with our fellow man, in the ultimate union of truth, beauty and love.

 

This is a shortened version of a paper Archbishop Anastasios, who leads the Orthodox Church in Albania, presented in February 2007. Archbishop Anastasios is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

A First Visit to Albania

by Sophia Jilderda

Friends and colleagues usually frown when they say, “Albania is surely not the country that most people would choose for a vacation?” Parents become anxious. “Isn’t it a rather dangerous place?” Naturally I went anyway!

In Albania, formerly the Mount Athos of atheism, we were the guests of the seminary Shen Vlash. In this newly built complex, with its view out over the harbor town of Durres and the Adriatic Sea, future priests and theologians (women as well as men in the latter category) study during the academic year. In the summer months it is used for conferences and youth camps. Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement that now has its headquarters in Poland, organized such an event for about 50 young people from Albania and other West and East European countries. The purpose was to give us the chance to get to know each other, exchange views, to study, and also to make pilgrimages and visit places of interest.

Through the years, Shen Vlash has kept its name as a holy place. Although the church there had been destroyed in the Communist era, brave people continued to come there to pray in secret. Even now they come from far and wide to this place, which is known for its miracles and healings. On the hill a church has been rebuilt and a monastery is being constructed, literally and figuratively; now there are two novices, who are responsible for the daily prayers. A medical station has also been set up.

In the course of seven years, an active and lively church has grown up under the inspirational leadership of His Eminence Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana, Durres and All-Albania. This is a most surprising fact, when you consider that not only the church but also its complete infrastructure had been systematically demolished in the course of several decades of severe repression. In those days there was hardly even a whisper of an organized underground church, although at one time 25 percent of the Albanian population was Orthodox.

Archbishop Anastasios told us that he and his staff had to sit at first in a hotel room in Tirana because the church had absolutely nowhere to do its work. He was sent by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to help build up the already autocephalous Church of Albania.

The Church has documents dating back to its apostolic beginnings. Durres, located on the famous ancient east-west route between Constantinople and Rome, had always sent its bishops to the ecumenical councils.

In the 18th century, the itinerant preacher, St. Kosmas Aitolos, traveled round these regions on his mission to establish churches and schools. Father Ephrem, abbot of the monastery of Ardenica (thank God not destroyed, only in a badly neglected state) told us about St. Kosmas while guiding us round the place where he suffered a martyr’s death and was buried. The church consecrated to him had been completely inundated by mud when a nearby river flooded the surrounding land. It is thanks to this that the church was saved and preserved intact, literally underground! Last year the Church organized a youth camp whose participants uncovered the building. No words can describe the power that emanates from the place where the relics of St. Kosmas used to lie (lost in the Communist time) and where frescos of him are once again visible.

Completely in the spirit of St. Kosmas, one can see in Albania that the work of rebuilding the church goes hand in hand with a whole range of social/diaconal projects: schools, polyclinics, orphanages, the supply of fresh running water and much more. This forms an essential part of the work and is of course provided for all sections of the population.

As the archbishop said, “The only way to live peaceably in this area is for the religious communities to take the initiative in accepting the existing pluralism. At the same time there must be a sincere respect for each other’s freedom of conscience and the rights of all minority groups. What is necessary is not only religious tolerance but something more positive: conscious mutual respect, understanding and solidarity between people; creative cooperation on common philanthropic projects; radical efforts towards social harmony; and sincere practical charity. ‘He who loves God cannot help but love his neighbor as himself,’ taught St. Maximus the Confessor.”

Traveling in Albania entails a certain amount of discomfort, from bad roads to hotel rooms with hand towels but without water. On the other hand Albania has deep-seated and untold spiritual wealth. It is the country of Mother Theresa, and only now do I understand why. It is in this country that she learnt unreserved love for the least of the least in the community. There are many more like her there. Meeting some of them confronted me, in a merciless way, with my own western assertiveness and egocentric tendencies that are especially propagated in our culture and are hardly ever subjected to correction, but which, in the end, do not match the message of the Gospels.

We traveled back to Italy by boat and from the deck we could see the city of Bari with a full moon shining directly above it — Bari, home of the relics of St. Nicholas. As a former protestant, there are few saints that have been with me throughout my life, but St. Nicholas has, and in no small way. My birthplace, Appingedam, has him as its Patron Saint, and my own family is full of Nicks. The Roman Catholics of Bari take no notice of the fact that officially St. Nicholas has been removed from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. The saint is shown all honor and respect — and in a corner of the crypt an alcove has been cut out to make a mini-chapel for Orthodox services. This is at least one of the blessings of the sixties!

Finally, on the feast-day of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, 12th July (29th June) I found myself in Rome, the place where both saints were martyred and buried. Together with the small Russian immigrant community at San Nicola, I joined in the celebration of the feast of the Patron Saint of this city, a service completely in Church Slavonic. It sounded just almost like “home.” But for me, Rome is first of all the city of my friends of the Communita di Sant Egidio, a group devoted to prayer, community and service to the poor. In the past they assisted in the preparation of a new constitution for Albania, including a new article on the Right of Religious Freedom. God be praised!

Sophia Jilderda represented the Orthodox Peace Fellowship at the Syndesmos conference in July. She is a social worker active with homeless young people and a member of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. The translation is by Deacon John Sewter.

Albanian Resurrection

by Jim Forest

In Albania you touch the rough surface of life every moment. Where there is wealth, it is gross and unembarrassed. Death is close and unhidden. Power and evil are without silk wrappings. Poverty rules to a degree seen nowhere else in Europe, and yet it is not hard to encounter kindness and welcome of a quality not easily found in richer countries. Guests are received as ambassadors of God.

The great majority of people are living in austere circumstances while in the countryside life has changed little since the medieval period. Many roads are unpaved, while those that are surfaced are so full of holes that even a short drive on what appears to be a straight road is a longer ride because of the curves the driver must make in choosing the path least likely to damage the car. Many still use horse and wagon or donkey. Electricity is unpredictable and the voltage flow so uneven that electrical circuits are easily damaged. Hospitals are few, with meager resources and in appalling condition. Schools are in a similar state. Many factories are closed because of decay.

Poverty often breeds crime, especially in a society in which religious life has been badly damaged, and this is the case in Albania. The “Albanian Mafia” is infamous throughout western Europe. There are cases of Albanian women forced into prostitution with the threat that any effort to inform the police or escape will result in the murder of one or more members of the woman’s family.

Since the borders opened in 1990, it is estimated a third of the Albanian population of 3.2 million have left to work in other countries. There are an estimated half-million Albanians in Greece alone, most of them there illegally.

Far worse than poverty was the creation of what Archbishop Anastasios often calls “a culture of fear” which he sees symbolized by the hundreds of thousands of mushroom-like bunkers scattered throughout the country. Especially during the Communist era, neighbor did not dare to trust neighbor. “Unless you liked to fight dragons, like Saint George,” one old man told me, “you had to carefully hide even the smallest sign of political dissent or religious belief.” Once a culture of fear is created, it is not easily cured.

While repression was normal throughout the Communist world, in no other country was the determination to destroy every vestige of religious life so methodical and thorough as in Albania. No one yet knows how many people were either executed or perished from illness, starvation or injuries in prisons and labor camps. At least 355 priests died in prisons, camps or remote places where they were sent into exile during the Communist era. Religious repression began when the partisans took power after the German occupation. In 1967 Albania went a step further, declaring itself the world’s first atheist state. Every church and mosque was closed. Many places of worship were demolished. Of 1600 Orthodox churches, monasteries and cultural centers that existed prior to the Communist period, by 1990 less than five percent were still standing, having been turned into warehouses, weapons depots, stables, stores, clubs and restaurants. (Ruined churches are still easily found, and always clear indications that for local people even the ruins of a church provide a place of prayer. Candles are lit, small paper icons are left.)

Among the treasures of Albania today is its Orthodox Church, at the heart of which is Archbishop Anastasios. Now 71, he had hoped to spend this part of his life teaching and writing books but has instead accepted responsibility for leading the Church in Albania.

The fact that Archbishop Anastasios is Greek has been a problem. Apart from the Greek-speaking minority, many Albanians regard Greeks with suspicion. He has often been the target of severe criticism and false reports in the Albanian press. Efforts have repeatedly been made to get rid of him. A law was almost passed that would have forced any non-Albanian bishop to leave the country. His life has been repeatedly threatened. It is one of many Albanian miracles that he is still alive and well. In his office, he showed me a bullet that had lodged itself in double-pane glass. But on the window ledge near the bullet, he pointed out a grey pigeon tending a single egg in a flower pot. “A bullet and an egg!” he commented. “Perfect symbols of Albania at the crossroad.”

The bullet was one of several fired at his office during the civil war of 1967. It was in this period that he issued an appeal that had as its theme, “No to arms, no to violence.” Against the advice of many friends, he refused to leave the country. “I am the captain of the ship,” he explained. “Others may leave but for me that is not an option.”

When he arrived in Tirana in 1991, the legal prohibition of religious life had ended but only a few buildings had been returned to the church, each in a badly damaged state. Only 22 priests were still alive, all of them old and frail, some close to death. Tirana’s cathedral on the main square had been demolished years before to make way for a hotel. Archbishop Anastasios’ first action on arrival was to visit the present cathedral, a smaller church which was converted to a gymnasium after 1967. Here he gave the Paschal greeting “Christ is risen!”, lit a candle and embraced local believers. “Everyone was weeping,” he remembers, “and I was not an exception.”

Since his arrival, eighty churches have been newly built, nearly seventy restored from a ruined condition, five monasteries brought back into existence, and 135 other church buildings restored. Since the seminary was opened in 1992, there have been 120 ordinations. There are several schools for young men and women, summer camps, youth festivals, a Church radio station and newspaper, an icon painting and restoration studio, a candle factory, and printing house. There have been many thousands of baptisms, often of adults, since 1991.

Archbishop Anastasios’ respect and affection for others is not limited to his fellow Christians. When we visited the Ardenica monastery, one of the few religious centers to survive the Hoxha period with little damage thanks to its having been designated a monument and made into a tourist hotel, he was approached by a shy man who said, “I am not baptized — I am a Moslem — but will you bless me?” The man received not only an ardent blessing but was reminded by the archbishop that he was a bearer of the image of God.

While his official title is Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, he has occasionally been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All Atheists. “For us each person is a brother or sister,” he explains. “We don’t have enemies. If others want to see us as enemies, it is their choice, but we have no enemies. We refuse to punish those who punished us.”

One of the most striking characteristics of the Church in Albania is its commitment to the works of mercy and education: clinics, programs to assist the handicapped, nurseries, kindergartens, a women’s rural health and development program, an agriculture and development program, work with prisoners and the homeless, free cafeterias, and emergency assistance to the destitute. (Most of this work is carried out through the Diaconia Agapes — Service of Love, a Church department set up in 1992.)

Assistance is available to each person without regard for the person’s religious belief or lack of belief. When half-a-million refugees flooded into Albania from Kosovo in 1999, the Orthodox Church immediately responded, taking care of 50,000 people. The only refugee center still open in Albania is a project of Diaconia Agapes. “Always remember that at the Last Judgement,” Archbishop Anastasios has said again and again, “we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person.”

Though a monk who has never known married life, Archbishop Anastasios has a remarkable ease with children. When we happened to pass a mobile dental clinic on the way to the Monastery of Ardenica, the archbishop decided not only to greet the local children waiting in line outside the van but to test the dental chair himself, much to the delight of the children watching. He was immediately a beloved uncle.

No matter how gifted the bishop, everything he does depends on the quality and inspiration of the people working with him, both Albanians and volunteers from other countries who have come to Albania to help, several through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center based in the United States, others from Greece. Each day I was in Albania I met with men and women who give an example of following Christ that I have rarely encountered before. Within the Church, I felt as if I were not just meeting occasional saints but was in a community in which sanctity is normal.

One such person is the secretary of the Church’s Synod, Papa Jani Trebicka. In the years when every religious symbol and gesture was prohibited and he had a factory job, he secretly made hundreds of small crosses that he would leave in the night at ruined churches as a gift for those who came to pray in secret. He was one of the first persons ordained a priest after Anastasios came to Albania. As a child growing up in what he called “the age of propaganda,” his family kept religious feasts in a hidden way. He told me the story of a woman whose hidden icons were discovered and confiscated. When the police were leaving she said to them, “You forgot one icon.” They replied, “Give it to us.” She then made the sign of the cross on her body. “There it is and no one can take it away.”

Metropolitan Joani, Bishop of Korca, is a scholar, but says projects to serve the poor are more important. “At the Last Judgment I will not be congratulated for my theological writings. I will be asked why I didn’t help a certain old woman.” We took me to lunch at the “service of love” free restaurant across the street from his office.

He was secretly baptized when he was 15. His father had been jailed before he was born as an enemy of the state. “Many times they nearly arrested me,” he told me. “I know so many people who went to prison. Once the secret police were going to raid my office — someone told them I had a Bible — but the director of my clinic was able to stop them. He had sympathy for me, and because he was a cousin of the director of the secret police, he could protect me.”

One of Albania’s bravest Christians during the Communist era was Marika Cico, also living in Korca. Now 95 and nearly blind, she is a fountain of joy, welcoming a stranger like myself as if he were her son. She and her sister Demetra (who died two years ago) had arranged many baptisms, weddings and liturgies in their home. Services were in the dead of night behind blanket-draped windows in a back room of their house. Working with the Cico sisters was a community that included a secret priest, the late Father Kosmas Qirjo, and a number of friends, among them the young man who is today Metropolitan Joani. Members of the group repeatedly engaged in “unsleeping prayer”– 40-day periods of continuous prayer, each person praying in one or two-hour shifts, for the end of persecution.

“Our priest, Father Kosmas, was very poor. His black raisa was so faded it was almost white. He had seven children and lived in a muddy hut with one window. When we talked with him we realized he was an apostle. He had not been well educated but he read the Bible by the light of the moon and God enlightened him. Like other priests, he became a laborer, but never gave up being a priest. ‘I am a priest,’ he said, ‘and I will serve the Church even if the Church has no buildings.’

“He lived far away. We would send him a message, ‘Please find wool so Frangji can make clothing for the children,’ our way of asking for Communion. On Thursday we would make candles and bread for the Eucharist. Then on Friday night Fr. Kosmas would arrive and that night we could receive Communion! He came to Korca five or six times every year. For 23 years, from 1967 to 1990, this is how we lived. There was not one church open in all of Albania.”

In 1990, when it was finally possible to engage in public worship without being arrested, the group organized a service for the feast of the Theophany, commemorating the baptism of Jesus. Marika showed me a brass mortar and pestle they used as a bell so that they could draw attention to their procession through the city. Thousands came out of their houses to take part.

I met a woman with a similar spirit in a village near the border with Greece. She told me about how her family had managed to live a hidden religious life at a time when even a red-dyed Easter egg could bring the police to the door. Had her mother not been regarded as crazy, she would have been arrested. “I am crazy like my mother,” the woman told me.

The word most often used to describe the church in Albania is resurrection — ngjallja in Albania. The church’s seminary is dedicated to the resurrection. The church newspapers is called Resurrection. Many churches have been given the same name. In my last visit with Archbishop Anastasios before flying back to Holland, he gave me a Paschal icon in which we see Christ standing on the destroyed gates of hell while pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs. Adam and Eve represent the entire human race in which each woman is a daughter of Eve, each man a son of Adam, and all linked to each other in Christ. The icon also mirrors the activity of the Church in Albania.

On the back of the archbishop’s pendant is the cross surrounded by two shafts of wheat. The symbol represents the Gospel text, “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth new life.” Archbishop Anastasios often remarks, “The resurrection is not behind the cross but in the cross.”

Jim Forest is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Many of Jim’s photos from his Albania visit are web posted at this site.

Crisis in Kosovo

Here is a selection of statements on the Kosovo Crisis from Orthodox hierarchs followed by a selection of related news articles.

Pristina church ablaze

SCOBA Hierarchs Call Upon UN and NATO To Restore Peace and Order in Kosovo

http://www.scoba.us/news

SCOBA

The Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas

8 East 79th Street

New York, NY 10021

March 24, 2004

Dearly beloved in Christ,

As Hierarchs of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, we deplore the terrible and senseless outbreak of violence and intolerance witnessed this past week in Kosovo.

We have heard the pleas of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. We join them in praying for the victims who were murdered or forced to flee from their homes while 18,000 international peacekeepers watched this wanton violence against the minority Serbian population and the destruction of the centuries-old cultural and spiritual heritage of the region–including UNESCO-protected sites.More than 3,000 people have been left homeless, 28 persons killed, and many injured. Furthermore, 30 churches and monasteries were destroyed, bringing the number of churches destroyed in Kosovo over the past four years to approximately 145. In addition, numerous villages were torched and leveled to the ground.

Terrorizing civilian populations, like terrorist activity in other parts of the world, must be confronted openly and directly. Ethnic cleansing is wrong, no matter who is doing it. Such intolerance, and hatred cannot and must not be rewarded.

We call on the United Nations and responsible Western governments to intervene swiftly and forcefully to restore a safe and secure environment in Kosovo, to protect the rights and property of minorities, and to preserve the remaining centuries-old religious sites throughout the region.

NATO soldiers outside ruins of bishops residence in Pristina. Having called upon our government to take appropriate measures, we call upon you also, our spiritual children, to let your voices be heard in the media and in the offices of your elected officials. We ask you, during this Lenten season, to intensify even more your prayers for peace in the world. Pray that our Lord will comfort and offer solace to the homeless and eternal rest to the victims of this violence.

To learn more about this crisis, tune in our radio program “Come Receive The Light,” on Saturday, March 27, where you will hear a radio interview with Fr. Irinej Dobrijevich at the Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade. In areas not reached by the broadcast, you will find it on www.receive.org.

For those wishing to help the immediate needs of those displaced, including food, shelter and medical care, please know that our agency, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) has been working on the ground in Kosovo since 1993. It is providing continuous humanitarian assistance to the refugees and persons displaced by this great tragedy. Donations can be sent to: IOCC, P.O. Box 630225, Baltimore, MD 21263-0225; or call toll free 1-877-803-4622.

We urge you to express in every God-pleasing way your support for our brothers and sisters in Kosovo.

With paternal blessings and love in Christ,

+Archbishop DEMETRIOS, Chairman Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

+Metropolitan HERMAN Orthodox Church in America

+Metropolitan PHILIP, Vice Chairman Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America

+Metropolitan NICOLAE Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America and Canada

+Metropolitan CHRISTOPHER, Secretary Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States and Canada

+Metropolitan JOSEPH Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church

+Metropolitan NICHOLAS of Amissos, Treasurer Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese in the USA

+Metropolitan CONSTANTINE Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA

+Bishop ILIA of Philomelion Albanian Orthodox Diocese of America

Relics burned

Photo ERP KIM: The tomb of the 14th cenutry Saint Joanikije of Devic was broken, marble slabs taken away, and the relics set on fire. The entire chapel at the monastery of Devic was burned with all frescoes.

Metropolitan Herman calls for Prayers in Response to Kosovo Crisis

Orthodox Church in America

Office of Communication – [email protected]

SYOSSET, NY [OCA Communications] — His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, sent a message of prayerful support to His Holiness, Patriarch Pavle of Serbia in light of the recent intensification of attacks against the Serbian Orthodox faithful in Kosovo and Metohija.

On March 17, 2004, as has been widely reported in the media, terrorists began what has been described by the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church as an “unthinkable pogrom” against the region’s Orthodox Serbian population, burning religious sites and private residences and at least one village inhabited by Serbs. The conflict has been described as the worst in five years. Especially disconcerting about the attacks is that to date over 15 historic churches and monasteries dating back to the 14th century have been destroyed.

In an appeal issued by the extraordinary session of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church dated March 18, 2004, the full text of which may be found below, Patriarch Pavle and the hierarchs decry “the continuation of organized Albanian terrorism against the Orthodox Serbian population, now in existence for several decades, against that which is considered both Serbian and world cultural heritage, as well as against other non-Albanian inhabitants in this area.”

“We call upon our faithful to remember in prayer our suffering brothers and sisters in Kosovo and Metohija, that a just and lasting peace will descend on the region, and that the terror which the Orthodox Serbian population has endured for years will end,” said Metropolitan Herman. “During this lenten season, in which we are reminded to take up our crosses as we follow Our Lord to Golgotha, let us especially remember those who are enduring the Golgotha of terror, ethnic strife, and gross injustice.”

Pogrom victim

Letter of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman to His Holiness, Patriarch Pavle on the recent events in Kosovo

March 24, 2004

His Holiness PAVLE

Patriarch of Serbia

Krala Petra br. 5

11000 Belgrade

Serbia and Montenegro

Your Holiness, dear Brother and Concelebrant in Christ:

It is with profound sorrow and anxiety that I and my brother hierarchs of the Orthodox Church in America have learned of the escalating ethnic violence in the Kosovo region and in other cities and regions throughout Serbia. We grieve the tragic loss of over twenty lives in these latest acts of senseless bloodshed, as well as the destruction of numerous historic churches, the monastery of Saint Michael the Archangel in Prizren, and many domestic dwellings in Serbian settlements within Kosovo.

The Orthodox Church in America has monitored with concern the ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated against Kosovo’s small remaining Serbian Orthodox minority. We are well aware that this current violence has its roots in the long-term and still unresolved issues of the future governance of Kosovo. We are deeply disappointed at the lack of progress on the part of the international community in fostering the development of a peaceful multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in the region.

We wish to commend the Serbian Orthodox Church for maintaining a strong voice in support of peace, reconciliation and inter-religious tolerance in the midst of such violence and tension. The courageous and Christ-like actions of Metropolitan AMFILOHIJE on March 17 that saved the historic Bajrakli mosque from complete destruction were a powerful sign of the Serbian Church’s commitment to a peaceful and sustainable solution to the current instability. Against a background of anger and temptation his actions provided a potent witness to the words of our Lord: “In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Be assured that the Orthodox Church in America will continue to express to American and Canadian officials in the UN and NATO, as well as to the Albanian authorities in Kosovo, the pressing need for a fair and just resolution to the many problems in this troubled region.

I pray, dear brother in Christ, that God may continue to grant you courage, peace and strength in this difficult time. Be assured of the constant and fervent prayers and support of all the hierarchs, clergy, monastics and faithful of the Orthodox Church in America who remain in deep solidarity with the suffering and struggling peoples of Serbia.

Yours with brotherly love in Christ,

+HERMAN Archbishop of Washington Metropolitan of All America and Canada

cc: His Eminence, Metropolitan CHRISTOPHER, Serbian Orthodox Church in the USA and Canada His Grace, Bishop ARTEMIJE of Kosovo and Metohija

Appeal from the Extraordinary Session of the Expanded Convocation of the Holy Synod of Bishops

Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church

18 March 2004

The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church, from their extraordinary session, which met in expanded convocation, summoned by His Holiness Serbian Patriarch Pavle, on the occasion of the latest tragic events in Kosovo and Metohija, issued the following Statement and Appeal:

Yesterday’s and last night’s unrest, which took place throughout the southern Serbian Province of Kosovo and Metohija, represent the continuation of organized Albanian terrorism against the Orthodox Serbian population, now in existence for several decades, against that, which is considered both Serbian and world cultural heritage, as well as against other non-Albanian inhabitants in this area. Terrorism and violence, which became especially manifest in the burning of the refectory of the Monastery of the Patriarchate of Pech in 1981, have continued and continually exist since 1999, culminating in that same year with the NATO bombing and the expulsion of several hundreds of thousands of Serbs and other non-Albanians, which would give increase in strength and intensity.

The results of that unheard-of violence are to be seen in several thousands of men, women and children that were kidnapped and murdered, villages and settlements with Serbian inhabitants that were burned, looted and endangered properties of the people, as well as of the Church, the destruction and damaging of more than 115 monasteries and churches. And all this has happened since this Province has been under the immediate protectorate of the International Community.

The climax of everything is just this recent, obviously planned in advance, unthinkable pogrom, which has been in process, over the rest of the Serbian people and their centuries lasting shrines. More than fifteen of the most significant churches and monuments of culture from 14 to 19 centuries, starting with the monastery of the Holy Archangels and the Mother of God church of Ljevish in PRIZREN, to the St. Nicholas Church (17th Century) at Belo Polje, have been burnt down and destroyed within a day. Some ten people were killed, the remaining Serbian settlements throughout Kosovo and Metohija are being burnt and destroyed, Dechani Monastery is being shelled, the monasteries of the Patriarchate of Pech and Grachanica are endangered.

For every reasonable person it is evident that here we are dealing with pre-planned total ethnic cleansing and destruction of all cultural and spiritual traces of the presence of Christian Serbian people on the territory of Kosovo and Metohija. Additionally, the representatives of the International Community, KFOR and UNMIK, by their actions or non-actions, from 1999 until the present day, contribute, voluntarily or involuntarily, to the definitive extermination of Orthodox Christian peoples from their centuries-long hearths and homes, and to destruction of their culture and all-Christian shrines of Kosovo. Our country, contrary to Security Council Resolution 1244, has not been allowed to defend its own people and a part of its territory, while those who on behalf of defending human rights and freedoms, have taken over the protectorate and responsibility, or by their passivity actually contribute to the escalation of unheard-of terror in the heart of Europe.

For this reason, the Holy Synod of Bishops appeals to the authorities of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as to the Government of Serbia, to do everything within their power in order to protect the people from extermination and from the ultimate expulsion of the Serbian people from Kosovo and Metohija.

We turn to the European Union, USA, Russia and the United Nations crying out that they urgently end this pogrom and terror, for the sake of God and for the sake of human dignity.

We also call upon on Albanians in Kosovo and Metohija and upon their leaders to stop this insanity, for their own sake as well as for the sake of their future. We remind them and also ourselves of the all-human experience, that violence, injustice and hatred have never brought any good to anyone.

Finally, we call upon all of our people that they in these extremely difficult times double their fasting and prayer for their salvation and redemption, for peace among us and all over the world. We should not allow ourselves, for the sake of any interest of this world, to commit anything that would be unworthy of the People of God, anything inhuman. During this turbulent time one should avoid any form of senseless and foolish revenge, such as that which certain imprudent persons committed against mosques in Belgrade and that in Nish. We should defend ourselves from evil and evil-doers, but not in an inhuman way or that, God forbid, we commit an evil or brutal deed in the way of evil-doers. O Lord, help all, and also us and our enemies, as peace, freedom and justice are necessary for all, both for us and for all peoples and nations.

Statement of the Extraordinary Session of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church

March 18, 2004

Yesterday’s and last night’s unrest, which took place throughout the southern Serbian Province of Kosovo and Metohija, represents the continuation of organized Albanian terrorism against the Orthodox Serbian population, now in existence for several decades, against that which is considered both a Serbian and world cultural heritage, as well as against other non-Albanian inhabitants in this area. Terrorism and violence, which became especially manifest in the burning of the refectory of the Monastery of the Patriarchate of Pec in 1981, have continued and continually existed since 1999, culminating in that same year with the NATO bombing and the expulsion of several hundreds of thousands of Serbs and other non-Albanians, which would give increase in strength and intensity.

The results of that unheard of violence are to be seen in the several thousands of men, women and children who were kidnapped and murdered, villages and settlements with Serbian inhabitants that were burned, looted and endangered properties of the people as well as of the Church, and the destruction and damaging of more than 115 monasteries and churches. And all this has happened since this province has been under the immediate protectorate of the International Community.

The climax of everything is this recent, obviously planned in advance, unthinkable pogrom, which has been in process over the rest of the Serbian people and their centuries lasting shrines. More than fifteen of the most significant churches and monuments of culture from 14th to 19th centuries, starting with the monastery of the Holy Archangels and the Mother of God church of Ljevish in Prizren, to the 17th century Saint Nicholas Church at Belo Polje, have been burnt down and destroyed within a day. Some ten people were killed, the remaining Serbian settlements throughout Kosovo and Metohija are being burned and destroyed, Decani Monastery is being shelled, and the monasteries of the Patriarchate of Pec and Gracanica are endangered.

For every reasonable person it is evident that here we are dealing with pre-planned total ethnic cleansing and destruction of all cultural and spiritual traces of the presence of the Christian Serbian people on the territory of Kosovo and Metohija. Additionally, the representatives of the International Community, KFOR and UNMIK, by their actions or non-actions, from 1999 until the present day contribute, voluntarily or involuntarily, to the definitive extermination of Orthodox Christian peoples from their centuries-long hearths and homes, and to the destruction of their cultural and all-Christian shrines of Kosovo. Our country, contrary to Security Council Resolution 1244, has not been allowed to defend its own people and a part of its territory, while those who on behalf of defending human rights and freedoms have taken over the protectorate and responsibility, by their passivity actually contribute to the escalation of unheard of terror in the heart of Europe.

For this reason, the Holy Synod of Bishops appeals to the authorities of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as to the Government of Serbia, to do everything within their power to protect the people from extermination and from the ultimate expulsion of the Serbian people from Kosovo and Metohija.

We turn to the European Union, USA, Russia and the United Nations, crying out that they urgently end this pogrom and terror, for the sake of God and for the sake of human dignity.

We also call upon on Albanians in Kosovo and Metohija and upon their leaders to stop this insanity, for their own sake as well as for the sake of their future. We remind them and also ourselves of the all-human experience, that violence, injustice and hatred have never brought any good to anyone.

Finally, we call upon all of our people, that they in these extremely difficult times double their fasting and prayer for their salvation and redemption, for peace among us and all over the world. We should not allow ourselves, for the sake of any interest of this world, to commit anything that would be unworthy of the People of God, anything inhuman. During this turbulent time one should avoid any form of senseless and foolish revenge, such as that which certain imprudent persons committed against mosques in Belgrade and that in Nis. We should defend ourselves from evil and evil-doers, but not in an inhumane way or that, God forbid, we commit an evil or brutal deed in the way of evil-doers. O Lord, help all, and also us and our enemies, as peace,freedom and justice are necessary for all, both for us and for all peoples and nations.

Statement of Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and All Russia on the Tragic Events in Kosovo

2004.03.22 Pravoslavie.RU

In the heart of the Balkans, on the land of Kosovo and Metochia, tragic events have been happening, which have resulted in death of dozens of people. The fate of the Serbian population of the region is in danger.

Numerous ancient churches and monasteries have been ruined – shrines of the Serbian Orthodoxy, precious monuments of history and culture of world importance. In response mosques are being destroyed in Serbia and acts of violence against Moslems occur. Escalation of this sanguinary conflict and new crimes committed in Kosovo can result in total extermination or exodus of the Serbian population.

Sufferings of innocent people, destruction of their houses, forfeiture of estate, demolition of shrines hurts my heart. I bewail the events taking place and call to restore justice and order as soon as possible. Peace must return to the land of Kosovo.

In the name of the Russian Orthodox Church I address the hostile parties: do not give way to the feelings of revenge, reject murder and violence, stop the war! I ask the hostile parties to listen to the lawful arguments of each other. It is my profound conviction that the fate of Kosovo has to be decided only within the framework of the procedures established by the international community. All residents of the krai, including the exiled from its territory have a right for this land and have to take part in determining its future.

I call the world community and the countries of the Balkan region to resolutely protect innocent people and their right to live on the land of their ancestors. If the Serbs can no longer stay in the krai, all international efforts to manage the conflict may be considered as failed or beneficial to only one party.

I pray that the Lord may reconciliate the enmity. Let everyone, on whom it depends, do their best for the residents of Kosovo and the Balkans to live in peace.

Patriarch Alexey II of Moscow and all Russia

22/03/04

Albanian bishop offers $600,000 for restoration of church and mosque

Ecumenical News International

Daily News Service / 26 March 2004

By Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Sofia, Bulgaria, 26 March (ENI)–Expressions of both sympathy and condemnation following recent violence in Kosovo have come in from many church leaders with a powerful statement of conciliation coming from Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana, who offered US$600 000 for the restoration of a church and mosque.

“The burning of churches and mosques, does not promote justice and peace, and certainly neither progress,” said Anastasios, Orthodox Archbishop of Tirana and Albania in a statement. “On the contrary, it is a return to times and practices which led the Balkans to stagnation, divisions and tragedies.”

“We offer $600,000 for the restoration of a church and a mosque in Kosovo, or the construction of a youth centre there that will promote peaceful coexistence,” said Anastasios. “This sum comes from the funds that, with great effort, we have raised for the construction of the Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana.”

Riots broke out last week after three Albanian boys drowned in unexplained circumstances, heightening tensions between mainly Muslim ethnic Albanians and the mainly Orthodox Serbs, who are a tiny minority in Kosovo.

Since then 28 people have been killed, several hundred have been injured, about 4000 left homeless, and places of worship including about 33 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries have been destroyed, while mosques have been torched in revenge attacks by Serbs. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has boosted its peacekeeping presence by 2000 soldiers in an attempt to quell the violence.

Archbishop Anastasios said: “Those who involve religion in the violence are essentially violating the spirit of religion. No matter how much one is in the right, he must respect the sanctity and the purpose of sacred places of worship. These should become centres of reconciliation and peace and not breeding-grounds for maintaining animosities.”

Meanwhile on Thursday, Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Pavle attended a service celebrated by Greek and Serbian clergy in Belgrade, at the Patriarchal Chapel of St Simeon Myrrhobietes, to mark Greek Independence Day. Pavle thanked the Greek nation for its “support and generosity” during the crisis, singling out Greek soldiers guarding Orthodox religious sites in Kosovo and Metohija.

The United Nations administers Kosovo, with NATO troops there to try to maintain peace. Kosovo is officially a province of Serbia and Montenegro, but it has been run by a UN mission and NATO peacekeepers after a 1999 air campaign by NATO pushed back Serb forces which had been cracking down on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

For more about the Orthodox Church in Albania: “The Resurrection of the Church in Albania

An Offer with Special Significance

$600,000 for a church and a mosque in Kosovo

Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania

Holy Archdiocese of Tirana

The burning of churches and mosques, does not promote justice and peace, and certainly neither progress. On the contrary, it is a return to times and practices which led the Balkans to stagnation, divisions and tragedies.

Indeed, those who involve religion in the violence are essentially violating the spirit of religion. No matter how much one is in the right, he must respect the sanctity and the purpose of sacred places of worship. These should become centers of reconciliation and peace and not breeding-grounds for maintaining animosities.

It is only with peaceful coexistence of the religious communities that genuine social progress can take place. This is the principal that we Christians and Muslims alike have adopted in Albania: to live together and to cooperate with each other in harmony.

The sobriety of religious tolerance and courage of love must overcome the blind hatred that can only lead to an escalation of conflicts. In the 21st century, worldwide and particularly in the Balkan region, we are called -independent of the national or religious community, in which we were born- to work hard to coexist peacefully, with mutual respect and solidarity.

With this conviction, the Orthodox Archdiocese of Tirana has made the following decision:

We offer $600,000 -for the restoration of a church and a mosque in Kosovo, or the construction of a youth center there that will promote peaceful coexistence. This sum comes from the funds that, with great effort, we have raised for the construction of the Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana. It will be dispatched appropriately, so that it be used equitably, according to the special significance of this initiative.

Tirana, 26.3.2004

+ Anastasios Archbishop of Tirana, Durres and All Albania

Forum on Kosovo

Washington,DC

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Senate Dirksen Office Building

Rm. G11 at 11 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

Under the auspices of Institute on Religion and Public Policy, a forum was held where H.E. Ivan Vujacic, Ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro, His Grace Artemije, Bishop of Kosovo, and Hieromonk Fr. Irinej Dobrijevic testified on the tragic situation of Serbs in Kosovo.

Bishop Artemije:

Ladies and gentlemen,

Only a month ago I was here in Washington to warn U.S. officials and the public of the catastrophic situation in the areas of security and human rights for the Serb community in Kosovo and Metohija.

Some of those who heard me speak understood the seriousness of my words but I am afraid that my words were quickly overruled by the report of UNMIK chief Harri Holkeri in UN headquarters and other international reports, which described the situation in the Province in unrealistically rosy terms.

These reports avoided defining the real problems, treating existing problems in lopsided and biased fashion. I regret that I must say that I was right because I would truly prefer reality to be as optimistic as seen by certain international officials. Unfortunately, the recent Albanian pogrom against the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, which occurred in the period from March 17 to March 19, has most loudly disclaimed all the illusions that representatives of the UN mission, as well as individual diplomatic representatives in Pristina, have attempted to present to the world as the irrefutable truth.

According to UNMIK numbers in just two days at least 20 people were killed, almost 900 civilians were wounded, 22 of them seriously, 561 Serb homes were burned down and 218 were damaged, among them the recently restored homes of Serb returnees paid for by the international community. Furthermore, as a bishop I am especially horrified by the fact that in those two days of disaster a total of 35 Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries were destroyed or heavily damaged, among them pearls of medieval architecture dating back to the 14th century. My Bishop’s residence and my cathedral in Prizren have been torched. Two monasteries from the 14th century have been burned to the ground.

While the U.S. cultural community admires the exhibition of medieval Byzantine art currently on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, including works of Serbian art, in Kosovo and Metohija in the last few days hundreds of valuable icons and works of art have been destroyed, dozens of cemeteries have been desecrated, even the relics of saints and the bones of Serbian rulers have been dug up and scattered. The bestial violence and barbaric behavior toward the Christian cultural heritage is absolutely shocking.

In the ash heaps of our churches, we are finding the remains of frescoes dating back to the 12th and 14th centuries, crucifixes and burned medieval manuscripts. Such barbarity, ladies and gentlemen, occurring not in a time of war but under a UN protectorate and in the presence of 18,000 of the best-trained soldiers of the NATO alliance and several thousand international policemen, is unprecedented in the modern history of the world.

May I remind you that violence against the Serbs under the UN protectorate and KFOR did not begin just a few days ago. It has been ongoing, with greater or lesser intensity, for the past almost five years during which 112 of our churches have been destroyed, almost 2,000 Serbs have been murdered or kidnapped, and one quarter of a million Serbs who were forced to flee from Kosovo after June 1999 before the Kosovo Liberation Army still remain in exile. We must not forget these victims of the so-called international peace. What occurred last week is just the logical continuation of what has been happening under the eyes of the world for years, as well as the direct result of the UN mission’s lack of decisiveness in establishing security and safety for all civilians regardless of their ethnic origin or religious affiliation, and bringing the perpetrators of crime to justice.

I must immediately emphasize that last week’s pogrom cannot be described as “an interethnic conflict between Serbs and Albanians” as some media chose to describe it, supposedly for lack of accurate information. Neither were these the misdeeds of a small group of extremists who previously destroyed our churches and murdered individuals, entire families and children. These were tens of thousands of Albanians who, led by former veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army, laid waste to everything bearing the sign of the Cross, of civilization, in Kosovo and Metohija. These were not just demonstrators; according KFOR testimony they were armed with machine guns, hand grenades even grenade launchers. And the targets of their attacks were not just Serbs, their churches and homes but also KFOR soldiers and UNMIK policemen who attempted to protect the Serb enclaves. According to data from UNMIK, 117 UNMIK policemen and 63 KFOR soldiers were wounded, and over 150 UN and local police vehicles were burned or damaged. According to information that has not yet been publicly confirmed, there were casualties among the international forces, including the two policemen killed just the other night in an ethnically pure Albanian part of Kosovo.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are the true results of the mission, which only a month ago was being called a “success story”. A month ago NATO generals were talking about the need to further reduce the military presence and discontinue security checkpoints, while UNMIK leaders were seriously proposing to complete the transfer of all competencies to Albanian provisional institutions. Serbian representatives, including those of the Serbian Orthodox Church, have been constantly warning that behind the facade of so-called democracy and apparent multiethnicity in provisional institutions hides a hideous picture of ethnic violence, discrimination, lawlessness and crime. We warned that the paramilitary organization of the former Kosovo Liberation Army had not been dismantled after the armed conflict and the deployment of NATO, that it had only been transformed into multiple satellite paramilitary and criminal organizations which continued actively arming themselves, planning and implementing the complete ethnic cleansing of the Province with the goal of creating a second Albanian state in the Balkans, a state where there will be room only for ethnic Albanians.

Is this a spontaneous or even a justified demonstration of violence? I will cite the official spokesman of the UN police, Mr. Derek Chappell, who was among the first to state that the violence suggested that the attacks “could have been planned”. I also received confirmation from Mr. Holkeri personally a few days ago; despite the fact that he, like many others, at first believed that this was a spontaneous demonstration of violence. On the morning of March 17, Albanian media unanimously took advantage of the tragic drowning death of three Albanian children to issue a war cry for the beginning of a general pogrom against the Serbs, despite the fact that the very next day UNMIK police confirmed that there were no indications that this was an ethnically motivated crime on the part of the Serbs. Soon NATO’s South-East Europe commander Admiral Gregory G. Johnson told media “the relentless wave of violence across Kosovo over the past two days now appears to be organized and orchestrated. What is more, Admiral Johnson told AFP on March 19 “to speak of inter-ethnic conflict in Kosovo is a big, hypocritical lie. What¹s happening in Kosovo is called a pogrom against a people and its history.” On March 20 Admiral Johnson told Albanian language media point blank “these kinds of activities represent ethnic cleansing and cannot go on. Fighting ethnic cleansing was the reason why we came here.” These words by a leading NATO official based on detailed reports from the field completely disprove the numerous reports that appeared in numerous respected newspapers throughout the Western democratic world, apparently based solely on the false claims of Albanian media and without any objective verification. Nevertheless, the lie has been discovered and the truth about ethnic cleansing and the systematic destruction of Christian holy sites could not be hidden.

On the day the pogrom began, Hashim Thaci was in Washington talking about multiethnicity and the progress of democracy in the Province. Events on the ground disproved his claims even as the words were leaving his mouth. While Thaci spoke about democracy, thousands of Albanians belonging to his political party were laying waste to entire Serb villages and churches, leaving graffiti — including the acronyms of Thaci’s party, the PDK, the terrorist AKSh, the Kosovo Protection Corps and other organizations under the KLA label. Buses of so-called war veterans armed to the teeth headed from Thaci’s native Drenica region in the direction of Pristina and Mitrovica and clashed with international forces.

Seeing they could not cover up the extent of the violence and barbarity, the Albanian leaders adopted another strategy. They tried to explain to the world that the cause of the violence was the unresolved status of Kosovo and Metohija, unemployment and other social problems. Although I have no desire to reduce the significance of these problems, too, I would like to quote the words of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, as reported by the Pristina Albanian language daily “Koha Ditore” on March 23 and by other international journalists: “I don¹t believe that the unresolved status has anything to do with this. This has to do with people who think wrongly, who have illusions that by carrying out these criminal acts of ethnic violence they get closer to their ambitions but they must understand that the international community will never accept this.”

Scheffer as well as other officials who have pointed out that the justifications of the Albanian leaders are attempts to avoid responsibility or transfer it to the international community and Belgrade, are in fact pointing to the root of the problem of what is now happening in Kosovo and Metohija. I will use an analogy:

Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, that a jumbo jet has been hijacked and the hijackers are threatening that they will begin killing the passengers, the pilots or that they will crash the plane into a high-rise building if their demands are not met. Would your government cave in to such blackmail? Would the hijackers whose demands had been met stop hijacking airplanes or would they hijack more planes and make even more demands? Ladies and gentlemen, in Kosovo and Metohija there is a campaign of organized terrorism going on against which we must fight in the same way that your country is fighting against terrorism in other parts of the world. If the Albanian extremists are rewarded for using such methods, crudely manipulating their own people and threatening regional peace in order to create an independent state that would institutionalize the rule of organized crime and mafia bosses, the situation will be seriously destabilized not only in the Balkans but in all of Europe and international global interests will be threatened. How to resolve this situation, ladies and gentlemen?

Let us use the experience of the medical specialist who does not prescribe over-the-counter pain relievers and vitamins to a seriously ill patient but sends him for detailed testing and then, if necessary, applies methods of radical surgery to remove the identified source of infection. So far “specialists” have not treated Kosovo but by “general practitioners” who have been treating the inflamed and cancerous wound of the patient with aspirins and band-aids, hoping the patient would cure him and thus simplify the procedure. The results of the wrong therapy can be clearly seen today. In political terms, Kosovo needs radical surgery and radical therapy, consisting of the following measures:

1. Strong KFOR presence with broad authority, which would discourage further demonstrations of violence and completion of ethnic cleansing.

2. Urgent intelligent operations to identify the organizers, planners, helpers and direct perpetrators of criminal actions. Those responsible to be brought to justice, extremist organizations to be banned and their paramilitary activities prevented.

3. Urgent restoration of destroyed Serb villages, the return of displaced persons, the restoration of destroyed and damaged churches in cooperation with the Serbian Orthodox Church and appropriate Serbian and international expert teams.

4. Detailed investigation of the work of the media and sanctioning of the use of media to promote ethnic hatred, encourage violence and spread propaganda. At this exact moment, an Albanian radio program is broadcasting inflammatory nationalistic songs celebrating Adem Jashari and the KLA. The Serbs are called the worst possible names, generating enormous ethnic hatred.

5. General practitioners and voodoo doctors of the past need to be replaced by competent specialists with broad powers and operational experience. A system of accountability needs to be established and all representatives of the UN mission, police and KFOR who in any way contributed to the escalation of violence either through their actions or lack of same must submit their resignations.

6. Urgent definition of concrete institutional and security systems to protect the Serb people and other non-Albanians from further annihilation. The integration of Serbs into a society where they are exposed to physical, spiritual and cultural destruction is an absurd request.

7. Temporary dissolution of Kosovo institutions, which by their silence, propaganda or complete lack of activity have shown themselves to be immature or incompetent for further participation in the political process.

8. Following radical therapy, a political convalescence process needs to be launched with those political representatives who are firmly committed to the principles and values of a democratic society. Serbs can only participate as equals and give their contribution to the democratization of Kosovo society only in such a process and with such institutions.

9. Finally, redefining the standards program and launching the process of economic and political building of a stable democratic society in Kosovo and Metohija with the creation of all preconditions for a consensual resolution of the final status of the Province where all peoples would enjoy all individual and collective human rights, regardless of final status.

10. Our opinion remains that the best way to resolve the Kosovo problem in the long run is to implement the through process of decentralization which would enable Serbs in the areas in which they constitute relative majority a possibility to have more self rule and protect their human, cultural and religious rights in a better way. Special protection has to be granted to Orthodox Christian monasteries, particularly our major monasteries of the Pec Patriarchate, Decani and Gracanica. In this proposal Kosovo would not become an independent state and the international borders of Serbia-Montenegro would not be changed. However, Kosovo would enjoy the highest level of autonomy within the country, which at the moment remains the most multiethnic state of the Balkans.

Otherwise, ladies and gentlemen, ideas suggesting that the politics of accomplished fact should be accepted with the goal of proclaiming the full or so-called conditional independence of Kosovo or Metohija or the partition of the province along ethnic lines with so-called “humane relocation of the population” would represent a dangerous precedent that would destabilize the situation throughout the region, embolden radical forces in Serbia and Macedonia, incite interethnic and inter-religious clashes involving the destruction of religious sites and prevent the European integration of this physical part of Europe for decades. The recognition of the independence of Kosovo especially would set a precedent for the use of violence to impose institutional solutions without recourse to negotiations and international law, which could have unforeseeable consequences.

I would like to assure you that most of the Albanian population in Kosovo has been thoroughly manipulated by their political leaders, largely leaders of the former KLA, as well as by the Albanian language media with few exceptions. They are channeling the completely understandable discontent of young people who have been promised a sort of Eldorado against the other ethnic communities and international missions and thus hoping to force international forces to abandon Kosovo and Metohija and leave them in full power.

In conclusion, as a bishop of the Church I appeal to the U.S. community, which has always stood on the side of the protection of basic religious and human rights throughout the world, not to allow unprecedented ethnic violence to unfold under the flags of the most respected democratic countries of the world, first and foremost, the United States of America; the destruction of centuries-old cultural and historical heritage, valuable Christian monuments and an entire people which has been present here for centuries and represents an integral part of the global cultural legacy which our generation needs to preserve for the future.

Thank you.

Read more on page 2

The Resurrection of the Church in Albania

by Jim Forest

In the last decade, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Church in Albania has gone through dramatic changes. Albania was the first officially atheist state in the world. After 1967 all forms of religious expression, even prayer in one’s own home, were forbidden. Since the fall of communism, the Orthodox Church, the oldest and largest Christian community in Albania, has been transformed from a repressed church into a vibrant, rapidly growing and inspired force for renewal and reconciliation in the country.

Jim Forest’s narrative presents a fascinating historical background and an inspiring story of current church witness. The traditions and life of this fellowship, so clearly portrayed, will help educate the wider Christian community about Albania’s diverse religious life and also the role religion can play as a potential force for both healing and peace in the Balkan region.

The book is illustrated with 65 photos. A selection of the photos can be seen at the Albania report page.

The author: Jim Forest has written many books, including The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway of Forgiveness, Praying with Icons and Religion in the New Russia. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of the quarterly journal In Communion.

Here are several chapters from the book:

Publisher

World Council of Churches

WCC Publications

P.O. Box 2100

1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland

published August 2002, 128pp, illustrated.

ISBN: 2-8254-1359-3

Price: Sfr26.00, US$15.95, UK£10.95, 17 euros.

The book can be ordered via the WCC web site.

Available in the USA from:

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ISBS has a sliding scale discount schedule for purchases: 1-4 copies 20%, 5-24 copies 40% and 25+ 44% plus shipping which the bookstore pays. “We require prepayment from bookstores that have never ordered from us before and take various credit cards and, of course, checks. We have a toll-free customer service phone number 1-800-944-6190.”

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Albania: first impressions

Resurrection in Albania

This short report with photos results from a trip to Albania that started at the end of February and ended March 16, 2001.

In Albania every moment you touch the rough surface of life. Where there is wealth, it is gross and unembarrassed. Death is close and unhidden. Power and evil are undisguised, with no silk wrappings. Poverty rules to a degree seen nowhere else in Europe, and yet it is not hard to encounter kindness and welcome of a quality not easily found in richer countries.

The great majority of people are living in austere circumstances while in the countryside life has changed little since the medieval period. Many roads are unpaved, while those that are surfaced are so full of holes that even a short drive on what appears to be a straight road is a longer ride because of the curves the driver must make in choosing the path least likely to damage the car. Many still use horse and wagon or donkey. Electricity is unpredictable and the voltage flow so uneven that electrical circuits are easily damaged. Hospitals are few, with meager resources and in appalling condition — broken windows and doors, badly overcrowded, many elevators no longer working. Schools are often in a similar state. Many factories are closed because of age and decay.

Poverty often breeds crime, especially in a society in which religious life has been badly damaged, and this is the case in Albania. The “Albanian Mafia” is infamous throughout western Europe. A car stolen in Amsterdam may well end up in Tirana. There is also the drug trade and, still worse, a trade in young women forced into prostitution with the threat that any effort to escape will result in the murder of one or more members of the woman’s family.

Possibly as much as a third of the Albanian population of three million has left to work in other countries — there is an estimated half-million in Greece alone, many of them there illegally.

Far worse than poverty has been the creation of what Archbishop Anastasios, head of the Orthodox Church of Albania, often calls “a culture of fear” which he sees symbolized by the hundreds of thousands of mushroom-like bunkers scattered throughout the country. Especially during the communist era, neighbor did not dare to trust neighbor. “Unless you like to fight dragons, like Saint George,” one old man told me, “you had to carefully hide even the smallest sign of political dissent or religious belief.”

While repression was normal throughout the Communist world, in no other country was the determination to destroy every vestige of religious life so methodical and thorough as in Albania. At least 355 priests were either executed or perished from illness, starvation or injuries in prisons and labor camps. Religious repression began when the partisans took power after the German occupation. In 1967 Albania went a step further, declaring itself the world’s first atheist state. Every church and mosque was closed. Many religious buildings were demolished. Others were turned in warehouses, weapons depots, stables, stores, clubs and restaurants. (There is still resistance in the government to the return of former churches and monasteries. No matter what road the visitor follows, ruined churches are still easily found, yet also clear indications that for local people even the ruins of a church provide a place of prayer. Candles are lit, small paper icons are left.)

For all its poverty and the harsh history, only among Palestinians have I experienced such absolute hospitality. What little people have they share with an enthusiasm that reveals a different sort of poverty in the rich world.

Among the treasures of Albania today is its Orthodox Church, at the heart of which is Archbishop Anastasios. Now 71, he had hoped to spend this part of his life teaching and writing books but has instead accepted responsibility for leading the Church in Albania.

The fact that Archbishop Anastasios is Greek has been a problem. Apart from the Greek-speaking minority, many Albanians regard Greeks with suspicion. He has often been the target of severe criticism and false reports in the Albanian press. Efforts have repeatedly been made to get rid of him. A law was almost passed that would have forced any non-Albanian bishop to leave the country. His life has been repeatedly threatened. It is one of many Albanian miracles that he is still alive, well and in Albania.

When he arrived in Tirana in 1991, the legal prohibition of religious life had ended but only a few buildings had been returned to the church and each in a badly damaged state. Only fifteen Orthodox priests were still alive, all of them old and frail. Tirana’s cathedral on the main square had been demolished years before to make way for a hotel. Archbishop Anastasios’ first action on arrival was to visit the present cathedral, a smaller church which had been converted to a gymnasium after 1967. Here he gave the Paschal greeting “Christ is risen!”, lit a candle and embraced local believers. “Everyone was weeping,” he remembers, “and I was not an exception.”

But no matter how gifted the bishop, everything he does depends on the quality and inspiration of the people working with him, some of whom I can now refer to as friends, both Albanians and people — in a few cases families — who have come to Albania to help.

One of the most striking characteristics of the Church in Albania is its commitment to education and the works of mercy: clinics, programs to assist the handicapped, nurseries, kindergartens, various schools, summer camps for young people, a seminary with not only men but women students, work with prisoners and the homeless, free cafeterias, and material assistance to the destitute. Assistance is available to each person without regard for the person’s religious belief — or lack of belief. When hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into Albania from Kosovo in 1999, the Orthodox Church immediately responded, taking care of 30,000 people. The only refugee camp still open in Albania is a project of the Orthodox Church.

Each day I was in Albania I met with men and women who give an example of following Christ that I have never encountered before. Within the Church, I felt as if I were not just meeting occasional saints but was in a community in which sanctity is normal. This is what I will be trying to describe in a book to be published later this year by the World Council of Churches.

Jim Forest, March 17, 2001 (updated March 23, 2001)

Glimpses of the Orthodox Church in Albania

Here are photos made during a stay in Albania that began at the end of February and ended in mid-March 2001. The first — at the top of the page — is the candle-lit face of Archbishop Anastasios, 71, taken just before an Akathist service in Tirana’s Annunciation Cathedral. His first action after arriving in Albania ten years ago was to visit this church, then in a ruined state, to light a candle in this church and meet local believers. During the communist era the church had been turned into a gymnasium.

Children in front of the Annunciation Cathedral iconostasis in Tirana on the Sunday of the Orthodoxy, a day when the Church celebrates the end of the iconoclastic heresy. Several of the children come from families serving the Church in Albania thanks to support of the Orthodox Christian Missionary Center in St. Augustine, Florida.

The reading of the Gospel in Annunciation Cathedral.

Fr. Luke Veronis with is son Paul visit Christina, a poet who is chronically ill, unable to walk and with only limited use of her arms. Her baptism several years ago was grew out of contact with students from the Church’s youth group. Christina — who has become much loved by the doctors and nurses — is one of the few patients to have her own room, but the room is now needed for another purpose. She has been told she must leave. The day we visited her she had no idea where she could live.

Archbishop Anastasios pointing out a bullet that lodged in the double-pane glass his Tirana office window during the violent upheavals that occurred in 1997. The heavy glass used in the windows was necessary because of threats made against the Church. On the window ledge behind the curtain on the left he pointed out a pigeon tending a single egg in a flower pot. The archbishop commented: “A bullet and an egg! Perfect symbols of Albania at the crossroad.”

Archbishop Anastasios reading aloud from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” First he recited the text in Greek from memory, then found an English text so that I might understand it.

During the Communist era, when every religious symbol and gesture was prohibited, Papa Jani secretly made hundreds of small crosses (here he is drawing a sketch of one in my notebook) that he would leave at ruined churches as a gift for those who came to pray in secret. He was one of the first persons ordained a priest after Archbishop Anastasios came to Albania. He is now secretary of the Holy Synod. Even after the communist period ended, attempts were made on his life by the secret police. As a child, living in what he called “the age of propaganda,” his family kept religious feasts in a hidden way. He told me the story of a woman whose hidden icons were discovered and taken away. When the police were leaving she said to them, “You forgot one icon.” They replied, “Give it to us.” She then made the sign of the cross on her body. “It is in my soul and no one can take it away.”

In 1999 many thousands of refugees flooded into Albania from Kosovo. The Orthodox Church immediately responded, taking care of the largest segment of refugees. The only refugee camp still open in Albania is a project of the Orthodox Church. Each family has its own small house, a donation from the government of Greece.

Bread, eggs and flour are among foods distributed daily to each refugee family.

Many churches remain in ruins but are still used as places of pilgrimage and prayer. This photo is taken in the roofless sanctuary of a monastery church dedicated to St. John Vladimir in the mountains above Elbasan. For many years the monastery was used as an army base. Now the nearby buildings have been returned to the Church. These are now used for a girls’ summer camp. But the church building itself has not been given back. A small icon of St. John Vladimir is near the bread on the table.

Metropolitan John, bishop of Korca, is the former rector of the Church’s seminary near Durres. A scholar, as time allows, he is translating religious books into Albanian and writing a three-volume book on dogmatic theology but says projects to serve the poor are more important. “At the Last Judgment I will not be congratulated for my theological writings. I will be asked why I didn’t help a certain old woman.” After a simple lenten meal in his apartment supper, when we were talking about gratitude, he commented, “Complaining is the disease of our time. Our sin is not being grateful. I visited recently an 83-year-old woman who was blind since she was three. I have never met anyone as grateful as she is, someone so thankful …. But in our present world if you don’t complain you are regarded as an idiot.

With the help of the late Father Kosma and several friends, among them the young man who is today Metropolitan John, Marika Cico (now 95) and her sister Demetra arranged secret baptisms, weddings and liturgies in their home in Korca. Members of the group repeatedly engaged in “unsleeping prayer”– 40-day periods of continuous prayer, each person praying in one or two-hour shifts, for the end of persecution. She credits her mother (in the center of the photo) for her faith. Marika is on the left, her sister Elizabeth on the right. “I am 95 years old and I have no strength,” she told me. “I have little education but I have faith and love. Who knows why God has allowed me to live so long. It is a miracle. I would like to die in a monastery. I always wanted to live a monastic life but it was not possible. I can die tonight, I can die tomorrow. Blessed be God.”

With a friend, Marika demonstrates how a mortar and pestle were used as a bell. “Finally [in 1990] the communist time ended — we were so happy — but all the churches were closed. The government in Korca decided we could have one church back and that we would be permitted to have the Liturgy there. The first service we prepared was for Theophany in January 1991. We had been preparing everything but we needed a bell! Then we found the solution, a large brass mortar used for grinding garlic! It rang perfectly …. Everyone came out to take part. They heard the bell. The roads were filled. Everyone was trying to touch Fr. Kosma. Everyone was blessed with water, the whole city.”

In the dead of night and with blanket-draped windows, this room in Marika’s house served as a hidden church. A niece of Marika’s is on the left, a friend on the right.

Free lunches are served five days a week in Korca as part of the Church’s “service of love” program. Among the frequent guests is Metropolitan John, whose office is across the square. The meals are cooked and served by volunteers.

One of the rare churches to survive to Hoxha era without damage, this chapel on the outskirts of Korca was recognized as a historic monument. While too small to meet the needs of a parish, it is now used for occasional services.

An icon of the resurrection now graces the main square of Lushnja — also a Marlboro umbrella over a fruit and vegetable stand. Note the approaching horse and wagon, which many people find not only cheaper but more useful and reliable than a car.

One of the main stresses on the Church in Albania is to provide basic health care. When we happened to pass a mobile dental clinic on the way to the Monastery of Ardenica, the archbishop decided not only to greet the children waiting in line but to test the dental chair.

Archbishop Anastasios greeting children and parents at the mobile dental clinic.

At the Ardenica monastery, one of the people who approached Archbishop Anastasios was a man who said, “I am not baptized. I am a Moslem. Will you bless me?” He received not only a blessing but was reminded by the archbishop that he was a bearer of the image of God.

The archbishop at prayer in the church of the Ardenica Monastery. In the communist era, the monastery (having earlier been recognized as a monument) was made into a tourist resort.

The fresco in the monastery church shows Christ in rags that are the result of schisms, heresies and dissension within the Church.

There are Albanians who believe in dragons and perhaps Albanians who have seen them, one of my translators reminded me after reading an essay on mine on the Saint George icon which treated dragons exclusively as symbols of evil and fear. Will I someday see a dragon in the mountains of Albania? What is certainly true is that the Church, represented by the Cross, has been attacked by dragon-like forces, yet not destroyed.

A view of the city of Gjirokaster. In the center is the Metropolia of the diocese, a series of buildings which include the Holy Cross School with about a hundred students. The ruined building in the foreground is the police station, burned by protesters in 1997.

In a village near Gjirokaster the Church has opened a school for girls from local villages and a dormitory where they can stay during the week. Girls are also a substantial part of the student community at seminary near Durres. Archbishop Anastasios wants the Church in Albania to have women with a solid theological background to prepare them for a wide range of responsibilities in catechism programs, education, diaconal service and parish leadership.

A woman in traditional clothing told me about how her family had managed to live a hidden religious life during the years when Albania was trying to suppress every vestige of religious faith. Had her mother not been regarded as crazy, she would have been arrested. “I am crazy like my mother,” the woman told me.

Archbishop Anastasios in front of bunker near a newly built church. There were between 500,000 and a million bunkers built during the communist era, a symbol of what Anastasios calls “a culture of fear — a fear that is still at the center of life for many Albanians. But new churches represent a culture of life.”

The archbishop often received flowers when visiting local churches. On this occasion he gave this bunch to me. I in turn gave the flowers to an old woman in black. She immediately rushed to the archbishop to present them to him…

Archbishop Anastasios with village children. He often speaks of children as the future both of the Church and stresses efforts to meet their spiritual and educational needs. Often it is younger people who bring their parents to faith.

Archbishop Anastasios blessing the ground where a new church, school and cultural center will be built. Architectural drawings are on the two chairs, the work of a architect friend in Athens who volunteers her services. A boy and girl hold the bishop’s symbols of office.

A church in a remote Albanian village where Archbishop Anastasios celebrated the liturgy March 11. The community’s main church was destroyed many years ago but the small cemetery church, having been designated a monument, survived and was used as for weapons storage.

This was the only decorated Gospel book I saw in church use during my 16 days visiting Albanian church. Such treasures were either destroyed or sent to museums. This one had been hidden by a local family and is now back in use despite loose pages and damaged binding. An image of Christ’s resurrection is in the center.

Communion in the village church.

Dionis Bello, an engineer working at the Metropolia in Tirana, stands next to a map showing the location of new or rebuilt churches in Albania.

Archbishop Anastasios with a Paschal icon of Christ lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs. Christ’s resurrection is both the theme of all his efforts during the past ten years and is the day-to-day experience of the Church in Albania.

On the back of the archbishop’s pendant is the cross surrounded by two shafts of wheat. The symbol represents the Gospel text, “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth new life.” Archbishop Anastasios often remarks, “The resurrection is not behind the cross but in the cross.”

page as posted March 18, 2001 / updated March 27, 2001 / photos by Jim Forest — please do not reproduce without permission

For another person’s impressions of the Orthodox Church in Albania, see Steve Haye’s report of his time teaching at the seminary near Durres.