Albania, The Catholic Church in
ALBANIA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Bordered by Yugoslavia to the north, Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south, Albania lies across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. A mountainous country, Albania's northern regions contain the Dinaric Alps, while small plains dot the coastal regions. Although Albania is among the poorest of European countries, it contains petroleum, natural gas, coal, and mineral resources; industries include lumber, textiles, and mining. Ethnic Albanians were originally a tribal people descended of the ancient Illyrians; they refer to themselves as Shquipëtars and to their country as Shqipëria. The Albanian language belongs to the Indo-European family, and is written in Latin characters with numerous diacritical marks.
Most Catholics living within Albania are members of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church has a metropolitan see in Tirana that oversees suffragans Berat, Korrçë (Korçë), and Gjinokastër. The Latin rite Church has as its metropolitan archdiocese Shkodër, which oversees suffragan sees Lesh (Lezhë), Pult, Rreshen, and Sapë. The Archdiocese of Durrës-Tirana is immediately subject to the Holy See. The Byzantine rite Church, with a membership of only 2,500, has an apostolic administration located in southern Albania.
A History of Conquest. As a combined result of the Roman occupation from the north in the 2d century b.c. and the adoption of a Hellenistic tradition to the south as a result of its proximity to Greece, Albania developed divergent cultures north and south, with the line of demarcation the Skhumbi River. In Gratian's administrative division of the Roman Empire in 379, under the Roman emperor Theodosius I, Albania was placed in the eastern section, then later pertained to the Byzantine Empire. As part of the Prefecture of Illyricum Orientale, it formed the provinces of Epirus Vetus (with its capital in Nicopolis, modern Preveza), Epirus Nova (with its capital in Dyrrhacium, modern Dürres), and Praevalitana (with its capital in Scodra, modern Shkodër). During the Middle Ages this area changed masters several times, being subject to Goths, Slavs, Avars, Serbs, Bulgaro-Macedonians, Normans, and Venetians. From the 15th century to 1912 Albania was under Turkish rule; it became a principality in 1912, a republic in 1925, and a kingdom in 1928. From 1946 to 1991 the country was under communist domination and was known as the People's Republic of Albania. A new democratic government came to power during elections held in 1992.
Development of Christianity in Albania. Christianity came to northern Albania from Rome in the form of the latin rite and to southern Albania from Greece in the form of the byzantine liturgy. There is, however, no evidence about the time and manner of its arrival. It antedated the Council of Sardica (343–344), since five bishops attended this synod from Epirus Nova and Dardania. The Slav invasion (c. 600) destroyed the ecclesiastical organization and caused the inhabitants to retire to
the mountainous districts, where they lived as shepherds, gradually reverting to primitivism. Mention of Albanians in the Church's historical record is nonexistent from the 7th to the 11th centuries, when it is known that groups moved southward and settled extensively in Greece as far south as Attica, where they adopted the Byzantine rite and adhered to the eastern schism of 1054. Northern Albania remained Catholic and retained the Latin rite. After the formation of the Slav principality of Dioclia (modern Montenegro), the metropolitan See of bar was created (1089), and dioceses in northern Albania became its suffragans. From 1019 Albanian dioceses of the Byzantine rite were suffragans of the autocephalous (independent) Archdiocese of Ohrid (or Okhrida) until Dyrrhacium and Nicopolis were reestablished as metropolitan sees. Thereafter only the dioceses in inner Albania remained attached to Ohrid. In the 13th century during the Venetian occupation, the Latin Archdiocese of Dyrrhacium was founded.
Turkish invaders in the 15th century met heroic resistance in northern Albania from the Catholic tribes under the leadership of George Castriota (1403–68), known as Scanderbeg. After Scanderbeg's death the Turks occupied Albania, except for some sections held by Venice, until 1912. During over four centuries of Turkish rule most Albanians converted to Islam, especially in central Albania during the 17th and 18th centuries. Frequently this change of religion was merely external; many families remained crypto-Catholics and preserved Christian traditions and usages, such as Baptism, veneration of saints, pilgrimages, and dietary regulations. As a result there evolved a kind of Islamo-Christian syncretism. The expansion of Islam diminished during the 19th century under Austrian protection, but it did not cease until 1912, after Albania proclaimed its independence.
Latin-rite Catholics. For several centuries the care of Catholics in northern Albania was confined almost exclusively to the Franciscans. Pope Clement XI (1700–21) was particularly eager to help these Catholics, because his family, the Albani, had migrated from Albania to Italy in the 15th century. At his insistence the first Albanian national synod convened in Shkodër in 1703. Attempts
to establish a seminary were made in the 18th century, but they did not succeed until 1856, when Italian Jesuits opened in Shkodër a pontifical college, to which a seminary was later attached. The Jesuits set up a printing press. In their popular missions they strove to abolish the custom of blood vendetta. The Archdiocese of Bar became part of the newly established principality of Montenegro in 1878, and by the terms of the concordat with Montenegro (1886) it ceased to be the metropolitan see for Albania. Shkodër replaced it the same year, with all Albanian dioceses except Durrës as its suffragans.
Orthodox Christians. The Byzantine tradition established in the Orthodox Patriarchate of constantinople prevailed in southern Albania and among the Albanians in Greece and Italy. The Eastern Schism entered Albania gradually. Union with Rome persisted in some mountainous districts until the 17th century; it was supported by national opposition to the Greek and Slav hierarchy, by some archbishops of Ohrid, and especially by the populace in the Chimarra district that repeatedly petitioned during the 16th and 17th centuries to have clergy sent there from Rome. In 1628 the Italian Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith dispatched both graduates of the Greek College in Rome and a group of Basilian monks to Chimarra. Athanasius II, Archbishop of Ohrid and a refugee in Chimarra, united with Rome in 1660 and consecrated one of the missionaries as bishop of the Byzantine rite. This mission was abandoned in 1765 when entry was barred to Catholic missionaries; it was not restored until Basilian monks came from Italy (1938–45).
By the early 1900s, following the country's independence, the religious composition of Albania was estimated as 70 percent Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox, and 10 percent Roman Catholic. Muslims were present throughout the country, but especially in central and southern Albania (a mufti was located at Tiranë; other strongholds were Elbasan and Vlora). Orthodox Christians were concentrated mainly in the south around the city of Korçë, while a small but unified Catholic community was centered in the northern city of Shkodër and the surrounding area, including Montenegro, Kosova, and Macedonia. Albania's status as an independent state prompted Fan Noli, a priest, to claim for the Albanian Orthodox the status of an autocephalous church. Noli also replaced the traditional Greek of the Byzantine liturgy with the vernacular, although this change was not recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople until 1937.
The Arrival of Communism. During World War II Albania was invaded, first by Italy, then by Greece, and then finally by the German Army. In November 1944 the country found itself independent but in financial ruin, and by January 1946 had declared itself a communist republic. Immediately, communists began a severe persecution of the Catholic Church on the pretext that Catholics sided with the former occupying government of Italy. All Italian missionaries were imprisoned, several were eventually put to death, and others were banished, including the apostolic delegate. The persecution extended equally to the native hierarchy and clergy and to Catholic schools and the seminary. Two Albanian bishops were sentenced to death; others were imprisoned. The Apostolic Administration of South Albania, which had been established in 1939 for Catholics of the Byzantine rite, was destroyed
and its administrator expelled. The Albanian Catholic Church was cut off from all contact with Rome or with other countries. While in 1951 a law enforcing intervention in church matters still permitted Catholic clergy to continue relations with the Holy See, such permission would be rescinded several years later. The Orthodox Church imitated the Russian Church's method of adapting to the onset of communism by recognizing the Communist government and its proceedings. As a result it received better treatment than the Catholic Church.
Bibliography: d. farlati and g. coleti, Illyricum sacrum, 8 v. (Venice 1751–1819), v.7. l. von thallÓczy et al., Acta et diplomata res Albaniae mediae aetatis illustrantia, 2 v. (Vienna 1913–18), contains documents for period 344–1406. m. Šufflay, "Die Kirchenzustände in vortürkischen Albanien," Illyrischalbanische Forschungen, ed. k. jireČek, 2 v. (Munich 1916) 1:188–281. m. e. durham, Some Tribal Origins, Laws, and Customs of the Balkans (London 1928). g. petrotta, "Il cattolicesimo nei Balkani. L'Albania," La Tradizione 1 (1928) 165–203; Popolo, lingua, e letteratura albanese (2d ed. Palermo 1932). f. w. has-luck, Islam and Christianity under the Sultans, ed. m. hasluck (Oxford 1929). m. spinka, A History of Christianity in the Balkans (Chicago 1933). n. borgia, I monaci basiliani d'Italia in Albania, 2 v. (Rome 1935–42). g. stadtmÜller, "Altheidnischer Volksglaube und Christianisierung in Albanien," Orientalia Christiana periodica 20 (1954) 211–246; "Die Islamisierung bei den Albanern," Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, NS 3 (1955) 404–429; "Das albanische Nationalkonzil vom Jahre 1703," Orientalia Christiana periodica 22 (1956) 68–91.
Religious Persecution. The persecution and isolation of the Catholic Church that began in 1944 under the Communist regime grew more intense with the passage of time. In 1966 the Albanian government promulgated Decree Number 4337, which extended the 1951 law empowering the state to control religious activity and annulled the Church's ability to maintain spiritual ties with the Holy See. The new decree prohibited all public and private religious rites and imposed great penalties on violators. Within a short time, the government seized and closed all churches and mosques in the country. In 1967 officials proclaimed Albania "the first atheistic state in the world." Of the 2,000 churches and mosques seized, 327 were Catholic churches. Most churches were destroyed while some were converted to secular uses or retained as historical monuments. The Shkodër Cathedral was converted to a sports arena; the Jesuit National Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Tiranë became a concert hall, while the National Shrine of Our Lady of Shkodër was razed.
Catholic bishops and priests courageously resisted the closing and destruction of churches and other religious buildings. In retaliation many of the clergy were publicly humiliated. Priests who spoke out were arrested and, after show trials, condemned to hard labor or executed. In 1968 Bishop Antonin Fishta was arrested for conducting religious services, and soon after he died in a labor camp. Bishop Ernest Çoba was arrested in 1976 and died under torture in prison in 1980. At this point Bishop Nikollë Troshani, who was serving a 25-year prison sentence, remained the sole surviving member of the Albanian hierarchy.
In 1975, emboldened by the failure of the world community to act on behalf of Albanian believers, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha led the communist government in taking yet another step to eradicate all religious influence from society. Decree Number 5339 prohibited religious names for newly born children. By 1976 the government judged that it had achieved its goal of eliminating religion. Antireligious policies were written into the new Albanian constitution: article 37 declared, "The State recognizes no religion whatever and supports atheist propaganda"; article 55 forbade the formation of any religious organization. Meanwhile, Albanian exiles in the diaspora attempted to counteract this persecution by enlisting the support of Amnesty International, the International Association for the Defense of Religious Freedom, Pax Christi, and the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
The Underground Church. Despite the constitutional ban on religion, the Church continued to operate underground. Priests and bishops who had not been imprisoned or exiled secretly ministered to the faithful. The famous 15th-century baptismal formula of Pál Engjulli, archbishop of Durrës, was used by parents and elderly Catholics to baptize infants when a priest could not be found. The formula, the oldest extant written document in the Albanian language, had been used by the faithful during the many centuries of Turkish rule. The blessings of marriages and prayers for the dead were conducted by elderly Catholics. Devout holy women and men became active in towns and villages, serving as indispensable helpers to the few priests who were still free and who would dare to officiate in the underground Church.
Because of the Church's isolation from Rome during the country's period of communist persecution, no Albanian bishops were allowed to participate in the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Catholics were prevented from learning about, let alone implementing the decrees of the council. Catholic prayer books and catechisms were also forbidden to be published or circulated in Albania. However, the Albanian Catholic Archdiocese of Bar and the Diocese of Shkup-Prizren, both in what was then the bordering nation of Yugoslavia, published several pocket catechisms and manuals in Albanian. These books were intended for Albanian Catholic refugees living in these diocese, but copies were also smuggled into communist-dominated Albania.
New Freedom. In April 1985 Albanian dictator Hoxha, the man behind the antireligious movement, died. Gradually the faithful began to identify themselves as Christians and practice their faith openly. Under international pressure from human rights organizations, the government's total ban on religion weakened. In May 1990 the government announced reforms, one of which was the lifting of the ban on religious practice. Religion could be practiced in private. In defiance of the still-existing ban on public practice of religion, Simon Jubani, who had spent 26 years in prison, illegally celebrated mass in the old cemetery of Shkodër in November 1990. Some 50,000 faithful, including Orthodox and Muslims, joined in the liturgy, ignoring the security police who surrounded the cemetery grounds.
In March 1991 the first free elections in over 40 years were held, and newly elected socialist prime minister Ylli Bufi visited Pope John Paul II in Rome. There Bufi apologized to the pontiff for the harmful and unjust policies of the previous government toward the Catholic community, paving the way for diplomatic relations to be reestablished between Albania and the Vatican. In 1992 elections brought to power the democratic party—which included several Catholics—and initiated a social order based on freedom and democracy, with full religious rights.
With the new freedom, the Catholic Church stirred to life. The Jesuits and Franciscans reopened their seminaries in Shkodër. The Albanian clergy began the reevangelization of the faithful aided by Albanian priests and sisters from Kosovo in the Yugoslavian Federation. Clergy, religious, and laity from Italy, Malta, other European countries, and the United States arrived to assist. Albanian parishes in New York City and Detroit sent help, which was badly needed given that only Bishop Troshani, 31 priests, and 44 sisters had survived the five decades of communist persecution. Many churches that had escaped destruction in 1967 were reopened and those damaged restored.
Albanian-born Nobel Peace Prize winner mother teresa opened the first house of her Missionaries of Charity in Albania in 1991; by 1994 the number had grown to 11. Although she was not directly involved in the movement for religious freedom, Mother Teresa served as an ambassador for the Albanian Church throughout the period of persecution and in 1997, shortly before her death, addressed the nation in an effort to help end outbreaks of street violence.
The resurrected Catholic Church in Albania, eager to reunite itself with the universal Church, quickly introduced the reforms of Vatican II throughout the country. New missals were translated into Albanian and published by the Congregation for the Evangelization of the People, under whose jurisdiction Albania belongs. Copies of sacramentaries and lectionaries printed in Albanian were a personal gift of Pope John Paul II to the Church, and were distributed to Albanian Catholics through their dioceses and parishes. An Albanian translation of all the major documents of Vatican II became available in 1993. The Catholic press in Albania, which enjoyed considerable prestige in the precommunist era, returned to publishing. A translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church into Albanian was published in 1996.
The Bill of Rights adopted by the Albanian parliament in March 1993 guaranteed among its articles the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; the freedom to change one's religion; and the freedom to manifest one's religion privately and publicly. A month later, Pope John Paul II visited Albania, where he was greeted by President Sali Berisha who pledged that the past wrongs inflicted on the Church by the previous government would never be repeated. During his visit, the pope ordained four bishops to fill sees vacant since the communist insurgence. The creation of the first Albanian cardinal, Msgr. Mikel Koliqi, by the pope in November of the following year gave new impetus to evangelization among the Albanian people. Koliqi, a living witness among the Catholics in communist prisons and labor camps for 41 years, represented for all Albanians not only a symbol of courage and hope in the face of persecution, but also a shining example of the traditional Albanian values of faith and homeland. By early 2000 there were two archbishops, four bishops, 97 priests, 13 brothers, and 277 sisters in Albania, and in June of that year the ordination of more five priests trained in Albania was deemed by the Archbishop of Scutari "a sign of hope that shows how the Albanian Church is growing rapidly after so many years of state atheism and martyrdom."
As the Church made great progress in reclaiming its place in the national life of Albania, it also renewed its traditionally cordial ecumenical ties with the Albanian Orthodox Church and reopened a friendly dialogue with Muslim leaders. Catholics and Orthodox cooperated with a small Evangelical Christian Brotherhood to make available for the first time an Albanian translation of the entire Bible, the work of a Catholic priest in Montenegro. However, competition in the form of new Protestant groups and other religious sects entering the country and threats from anti-Christian Muslim groups showed religious freedom to be somewhat of a double-edged sword to a Church attempting to reestablish its footing after so many years of suppression.
Continuing Political Turmoil. Unfortunately, the new freedoms failed to bring peace and prosperity to the Albanian people. During the 1990s, a failed nationwide pyramid scheme left many citizens bereft of life savings and others desperate enough to vandalize private, public, and even Church property. On June 29, 1997, with help from the European Union, free elections were held that brought to power a socialist president and the hope that the new government could restore public order. In October 1997 a high-ranking representative of the Albanian government traveled to the Vatican, receiving the support of the Church in all efforts at "material and spiritual reconstruction" during a private audience with John Paul II.
As acts of religious intolerance and other social protests continued to surface within Albania, they were dramatically overshadowed by events a few miles away, in the Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians—most of them practicing Muslims— were subjected to Serbian violence following a regional request for political autonomy from the Yugoslavian Federation. Many thousands fled to their historic home in Albania, where they were welcomed by the Church. Catholics responded to the crisis by sending humanitarian aid to ethnic Albanians within Kosovo, resulting in the bombing of an Orthodox Church in northern Albania in 1998 and the vandalization of three other churches in 1999. Communications between the pontiff and the Albanian government continued throughout the crisis, as both representatives of the Albanian people sought a way to end what quickly turned into an effort at "ethnic cleansing" The Church was also involved in ecumenical councils formed to address the needs of the over 270,000 Kosovar refugees that remained sheltered in Albania until the end of the Serbian violence in 1999.
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