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.