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.