Images from Albania

text by John Burger
photos by Maria Bastone

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A tall, bright-eyed girl of 15 was one of the many neighborhood children who crowded around the white van as it pulled up to the Missionaries of Charity’s house in Tirana, the capital of Albania. A crucifix and medal encircled her neck. The medal read, in Italian, “In commemoration of my first holy communion.”

The girl had been prepared for baptism and first communion by the sisters who staff Tirana’s mission house. The object of her curiosity was not the van, but its passenger – Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian who was born in the Balkans some eight decades ago.

Just five years ago such an event would have been unimaginable in Albania. For decades many of Albania’s three million people – Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic – prayed secretly for the day when they would be free to worship.

The country I encountered was hopeful, but afraid; joyful, but impoverished. I was sent by Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, to cover the ordination of four new bishops by Pope John Paul II. The pope’s visit was significant for at least two reasons: it was the first papal visit to Albania in history. And the ordination of the new bishops restored the Catholic hierarchy to a country that had suffered under one of the most repressive regimes ever.

One of the four new bishops is an ethnic Albanian who had served New York City’s Albanian community for 20 years, Archbishop Rrok Mirdita of Durres-Tirana. Joining him was John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

In 1967, Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Stalinist dictator, branded religion superstitious, officially outlawed all religious practice and declared Albania the world’s first officially atheistic state.

All signs of “this superstition” were obliterated. Religious buildings that were not razed were transformed into “useful” structures. “Useful” was a key word. Gymnasiums, theaters and youth centers were useful; worship centers were not.

Likewise priests might be made useful and productive citizens; they were usually put to work in the mines or quarries.

Albania is a rural country with a Mediterranean climate and stark, beautiful scenery. The wide boulevards of the dusty, polluted capital are lined with drab Soviet-inspired government buildings. Beyond these one finds cluttered neighborhoods of shoddily built apartment buildings with scarred pastel skins.

On a brief evening stroll through a section of Tirana, photographer Maria Bastone and I saw many such buildings, some scrawled with political graffiti from the first free elections in 1991, others topped with satellite dishes. A few steps further took us to a block where bright new private houses were going up, worthy of the best sections of suburbia. A block away an apartment building seemed almost frozen in the midst of construction; formerly homeless people already occupied some of the rooms, their kitchen tables concealed by the day’s laundry.

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