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In Their Homes, Hearts, Albania’s Faithful Defied Atheist Regime

02 Sep 2014 – By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Walking to a cemetery on All Saints’ Day, watching television past 10 p.m., even slaughtering a kid goat on Easter were once so highly suspect in Albania, they would trigger neighborhood spies to tip off communist authorities.

The religious persecution the atheist state waged between 1944 and the 1990’s was so severe, it prompted Pope Francis to make Albania the first country in Europe he visits. He told journalists in August that learning about a country where worship was illegal, churches were torn down or turned into movie theaters made him feel, “I should go,” so he will visit on 21 September.

Luigj Mila, secretary-general of the Albanian bishops’ justice and peace commission, recalled life growing up in atheist Albania.

“I remember an old man who went to pray for his mother at the cemetery. He was walking there slowly and a communist saw him and chased him away. He returned home, crying, ‘They didn’t let me pray for my mother.’ This hit me so hard, I’ll never forget. How could you do such a thing to a man in his 90’s? What harm could it do to a party?”

After Enver Hoxha came to power in 1944, he spearheaded a brutal campaign to create a new Albania: a nation of atheists “par excellence, who have in their hearts only the Communist Party,” said Albert P. Nikolla, head of Caritas Albania.

The worst atrocities occurred between 1944 and 1967, Mila said, culminating in a constitutional ban of all religions. After that, until the regime dissolved in the early 1990’s, all forms of worship were a crime.

Priests, religious and lay Catholics faced arrest, torture, firing squads, concentration camps and forced labor resulting in the death of “many lay people and 104 priests,” Mila told Catholic News Service.

Though St. John Paul II recognized 40 of them as heroes of the faith, their process of beatification is still ongoing.

Father Gjergj Meta, media coordinator for the Archdiocese of Tirana-Durres, said the lives of the martyrs inspired him to pursue the priesthood.

“I read about the priests who were killed, and it pushed me to think about my vocation and to want to replace one of them,” said the 38-year-old priest.

Those who survived the purge were driven underground as Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians sought to safeguard and pass down their faith — a faith so valuable that parents and grandparents risked their lives and liberty for it, he said.

For Klaudia Bumci, head of Vatican Radio’s Albania program, growing up in an underground church meant she was baptized in her home under lockdown.

“There was a priest in our home that day, my parents and an uncle, who was going to be my godfather,” she said in a July interview with Il Sismografo, an Italian blog.

“My mother still talks about how worried the priest was, he urged us to not let anything get out” about the baptism, Bumci said.

People’s movements were watched, “even lights inside the home had to be turned off by 10 p.m.” when Albanian television programming ended.

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Tags: Pope Francis Violence against Christians Communism/Communist Albania Albanian Catholic