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The Orthodox Church of Albania

Christianity arrived in Albania before the 4th century from two directions. The Ghegs in the north of the country became Latin Christians, while the Byzantine tradition was predominant among the Tosk people in the south. Following the Turkish conquest in the 15th century, the majority of Albanians became Moslem. Under Ottoman rule, the remaining Orthodox population of Albania was integrated into the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and all Orthodox religious services, instruction and cultural activities were conducted in Greek.

The first Orthodox community to use Albanian in the liturgy was in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, in 1908 among a group of Albanian immigrants led by Fr Fan Noli (1882-1965). Noli had prepared his own translation of the liturgy into Albanian, and used it also during a tour several major cities of Europe in 1911. Soon after Albanian independence in 1912, Fan Noli traveled to Albania where he would be ordained a bishop and become the head of the church, whose independence he strongly supported. He also became an influential political figure, and would even serve briefly as prime minister for five months in 1924, until his government was overthrown and he went into permanent exile.

In 1922 a government-sponsored congress in Berat in 1922 had proclaimed the autocephaly of the Albanian Orthodox Church, and adopted a church constitution that was later sanctioned by the government. But it was only in 1929 that King Zog asked two bishops in the country to ordain three more bishops, thus creating a five-member Holy Synod which again declared autocephaly. Constantinople reacted by deposing the Albanian bishops, and a de facto schism was created. The impasse was broken only in 1936 when the Albanian government proposed naming Metropolitan Kristofor Kissi, who had strong ties to Constantinople, as the new primate. In response, the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized the autocephalous status of the Albanian Orthodox Church and regularized the situation with a patriarchal Tomos on April 12, 1937.

During the interwar period, aside from the Archbishopric of Tirana, there were Orthodox dioceses in Berat, Argyrokastro (Gjirokaster), and Korytsa (Korce). Greek was still widely used in the liturgy, but a process of preparing new translations of the texts into Albanian began in 1930. Parishes were allowed to choose the language they preferred. An Orthodox seminary was founded at Korytsa in 1937.

The communist revolution of 1945 marked the beginning of savage persecution of all religious groups in Albania. By this time the population was approximately 22% Orthodox and 10% Catholic. A number of influential Orthodox clergy were executed, and in 1949 Archbishop Kristofor Kissi of Tirana was deposed. By 1951 all the Orthodox bishops had been replaced by men acceptable to the regime.

The Albanian government eventually took much stronger measures against religion than other governments in Eastern Europe. In 1967 the communist regime announced that all religious edifices in Albania, including 2,169 churches, mosques, monasteries and other institutions, were being closed and that all religious practices were illegal. In the same year, Archbishop Damianos of Tirana was sent to prison where he died in 1973.



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