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The Orthodox Church of Albania

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Albania began not in the obscure Balkan nation of Albania, but in Boston, Massachusetts. There, in 1908, free from the constraints of Ottoman Turkish oppression and Greek domination, the Albanian-American Orthodox community formed an ethnic Albanian church, Byzantine in ethos and Orthodox in faith. Fours years later — after a rump Albanian state was carved from the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire — serious discussions surfaced in the homeland concerning the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Albania.

Since its inception a century ago, this community of faith has suffered significantly, especially during the Marxist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. In 1967, Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheistic state, targeting the country’s Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox communities equally. He jailed the nation’s Orthodox bishops and clergy; an unknown number were murdered. His henchmen shuttered monasteries and pulled down hundreds of churches, converting the remaining sanctuaries into cinemas, clubs, gymnasiums and stables. Hoxha’s campaign desolated the Orthodox Church. After his death in 1985, and the subsequent collapse of the Marxist government six years later, a representative of the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople toured the country — only 15 clergymen and a handful of laity remained to brief him.

Orthodox Christians once accounted for some 20 percent of Albania’s population; most were “Tosks,” a term that describes a collection of Albanian tribes concentrated in the southern half of the country. Latin Catholics, concentrated among the “Ghegs” in the north, included about 10 percent of the population. Muslims dominated both groups, and all descended from Catholic or Orthodox tribes that embraced Islam after the Ottomans began to subdue the Balkans in the 15th century.

Today, most Albanians, while conscious of the cultural, religious and tribal identities of their forebears, remain largely aloof from religion. About a third of Albania’s 3.6 million people identify themselves as believers. Muslims — primarily Sunnis or Bektashi, a Sufi sect — dominate the religious landscape, followed by Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

The Orthodox Church of Albania boasts some 640,000 members, an inflated figure according to most experts. Yet, there is no question the church is resurgent. Led by Greek-born Metropolitan Anastasios, the church has since its reestablishment in 1991 reconstructed five monasteries, built 90 churches and restored more than 140 others. A number of institutions, including schools and clinics, youth camps and student hostels, seminaries and vocational centers, have been created. In addition, the church is also engaged in multimedia, running a radio station and publishing a number of periodicals in Albanian and Greek, including a newspaper. The renascent church, however, still faces enormous socio-political challenges.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Church history Albania Balkans