I want to share with you a piece of the history of Albania and how I have experienced the period of communism and post- communism.
In 1944 after the end of World War II the communist party gained the control of the country. From 1944 to 1990 Communist atheism became rooted in Albania. The regime tolerated no rival. They saw (viewed) religion as a threat and ordered miserable persecution toward all religions. For the first 23 years, this persecution followed the same course as similar persecutions in Russia and other Balkan states. The public activities of clergy in churches and mosques were restricted. Albania’s religious seminaries were closed. Many people of every religious community were sent to prisons where torture was a common feature and the death rate was high. Many others were exiled to labor camps or to remote villages where they lived as outcasts in virtual slavery. Rarely was a single person punished. The entire family would have to share the same fate.
However, on October 22, 1967, out of its desire to be seen as an innovator in world history (and inspired by “China’s revolution”) the communist regime proclaimed itself constitutionally the first and only atheist state in the world. All religious property was seized. All remaining places of worship were closed without exception. Even the practice of religion in private was forbidden. Just the act of crossing oneself could lead to a prison sentence. Many Churches were destroyed or converted for secular use’s, switched as warehouses, cinemas, stables and a few Churches survived as museums.
Officially, religious propaganda was banned and was placed at the same level as fascist propaganda. Religious customs and names were outlawed. To understand better this fact I wont to read you some fragment of a letter that Central Committee of Communist Party. Pricelessly, the former President of Albania in 1985 -1991 Ramiz Alia sent to all local Party Comities on May 30, 1967, with title: “The socialist dogma must “Suffocate” religious Celebration”.
The religion celebration should not exist any more and were replaced with socialist celebrations, was in itself an ideological problem, which deserved all the attention and care of the Party. To the outside world, Albania was a closed and almost forgotten land. For 23 years Christ was crucified again.
I am born during this period so in the communism regime. What, I remember from my formal education is the theory of evolution by Darwin with a strong emphasis that God does not exist.
All the population starting with the youngest children in kindergarten and continuing with older generations where brainwashed teaching them that God does not exist and worship songs were dedicated to Socialist party and the leader of the party.
I remember one day when I was young, I went back from the school and asked does God exist. My grandmother with low voice said He exists, but you should not mention this outside home. This remains in my mind for a long, long time.
It is unimaginable in this country where the Gospel made its way to Albania from the very beginning when Paul traveled around the North Mediterranean regions in his missionary journeys, to declare it self as an atheist country.
In Rom. 15:19 he writes “… that from Jerusalem and round about unto Illyricum I have fully preached the Gospel of Christ”. What was then known as Illyricum is present day Albania.
The ruin of the cult places is the smallest damage done; this is not the tragic harm of the communism the worse damage is done within the person. The communism tried to destroy the human nature as God’s creation. The communism tried to destroy trust, love, sincerity, freedom, the sense of belonging to Creator within the person and tried to sow fear, hatred, closeness, doubt, slavery, and the sense of belonging to Social party.
Maybe you will thing that the church was vanished during these 23 years but the church is not only the building and the visual one but is the church within the heart that is can not be destroyed easily.
I can bring hear the examples of the catholic and orthodox priests who continued to pray baptize and held services secretly. I was moved hearing for a old Adventist lady that for 23 years has collected the tithe and continuing prayed and when the church was opened she gave the collected tithe of 23 years. Another example is that in spite of risk, people continued to believe, persisted to celebrate Easter and Christmas in various and unique ways.
However, most of the population was impacted negatively form the communist propaganda including my parents. The new generation thoughts and formation was distorted and one of them was even me.
After the communist regime collapsed in 1991, churches and religious communities began to emerge from their underground existence. The Albanians were so thirsty for religious freedom. Many of them gathered for services in open fields or where the only remains of their former churches were broken bells and ruins. I am not one of them who run to the church as soon as was opened. The education that I had was so strong and I was so indifferent for the church and religious thinking that this is not for me maybe is for the others. I was educated that religious is something for the illiterate and unknowledgeable people. In my mind it was strong the communist demagogy: Religious is opium for people and you can image how many young people were like me.
The Church started by proclaiming the gospel of love and peace and helping people to restore the relationship with the Creator. It developed a life of worship and cultivated a Christian (Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical) conscience. It established parishes and congregations, with active liturgical or service lives in many cities and towns.
At this time of change I finished University and started to work as a young teacher in one of the schools in Tirana. Faced with a system that was falling a part and did not allow me to realize my dream of helping others learn, I decided to change my career working as a manager in the confection business. I learnt and earned, but deep inside my soul I had this call for children. A friend of mine took me to Church on Good Friday of 1993. A friend of whom I wanted to become alike seeing her reaching out to others and knowing the Lord. And she took me during the liturgical journey to the tomb, where I discovered in a very indefinable way, the essence of the Christian faith.
I realized that if people know Christ, things will change and we will grow in the richness of life. From that moment my journey with our Lord has been a joyful walk. I feel that I am living the joy of resurrection that I met in that very special period.
Catholic Church and Orthodox Church are active in most of the respective communities. There are around Evangelical 220 churches in Albania compared with only 16 known evangelical believers who had survived the previous regime.
The church is active in youth and children education. The church is helping the person to be restored through nurturing love; trust, openness, freedom and sense of belong to Creator.
In addition to rebuilding her physical and spiritual structures, the Church is also undertaking important work in other areas, such as health care, education, relief and development work, culture, environment.
The Churches in Albania have good relationships and live in peace among Christian communities. The churches have developed good relationships. The three denominations created in September 1996 the Bible Society. Other activities are organized together like round tables, prayer meetings etc.
Despite its complex history, Albania is characterized by a remarkable religious tolerance. The tradition of respect and popular interaction among various religious communities continues today. There are regular inter-religious meetings and events involving all the churches.
The creation of good relationships with the Muslim community has been another effort of the church. These interactions are rooted in Albanian history, but it is necessary to dialogue between these two religious in order to encourage tolerance and peace, as well as co-existence.
There are many challenges and difficulties faced in rebuilding the church. The brutal aggression of the communist regime along with the destruction of the church’s buildings and monasteries, also negatively affected the hearts of the people. In conjunction with its efforts and its struggle to resurrect itself from the ruins of the past, simultaneously, the young (old) Church took an active role in facing various challenges such as soothing the pain of the past and confronts the problems that our country has gone through during these 19 years of spiritual, social and economic transformation.
However, the Albania society is changing a lot in the recent years. The secularisms, individualism and materialism are dominating the society. The young people follow model of the west movies that it most of the time is the wrong one and still dream and aim to leave the country and to emigrate to the west hoping to find there a better life.
I know that personally as a Christian I have a mission in Albania, The church has a mission, and WV has a mission.
My assistant, Ekatherina Papadhopuli, is Faith & Development Programmes Offices for the Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International. She is an Albanian Orthodox believer, married to Iorgos, an Old Testament professor at St. Vlash Orthodox Academy in Durres, Albani. They have two small children.