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The Long Good Friday of Albanian Christians

by James V. Schall, S.J.

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Albania, a land whose religious roots go back to the earliest days of Christianity, receives little attention. Yet it is the world’s most rigorously atheist state, in which all religious signs have been officially and legally eliminated. Its government has sustained one of the most persistent persecutions against religion in the modern era, and its victims are Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic. Still, Albania and its people remain little known to western Christians.

John Paul II’s recent encyclical on the Slavic religious tradition, however, recognizes the Eastern European Christians who have lived under atheist regimes since World War II. No one can be surprised if in turn the pope is denounced in a country whose population is 13% Catholic. The harsh words of some Albanian officials who accuse the Holy Father of being a hypocritical actor suggest the sort of hostility and persecutions all believers undergo in modern-day Albania. Similar words were heard against Paul VI, who definitely was not, like John Paul II in his youth, an actor.

The engineer of this unique sort of state atheism was Enver Hoxha, who died on April 11, 1985. He had directed over 40 years of religious persecution against his own people. He established an absolutely closed state in which citizens were rarely allowed to leave and no foreigners could visit except under strict censorship and under tight surveillance. His policies tried to isolate Albania from the world. Its systematic efforts included official attempts in the late 1940s to separate the Albanian church from the Holy See, as well as official “Decrees of Atheism” in 1967 and 1976, after which all 327 Catholic churches in Albania were closed – often destroyed or turned into secular institutions such as museums.

The list of Albanian clergy, bishops, and religious killed or kept in prison camps is so long that it is hard to comprehend why it is not better known. The record of victims of brutal persecution in Albania ranges from Father Leke Luli’s murder by guerrilla forces in 1944 to Father Ndoc Luli, S.J., being sentenced to death in 1980 for baptizing twins born to his nephew’s family.

The murder of Bishop Franco Gjini in 1948 exemplifies the regime’s methods. Immediately after the bishop published a letter denouncing the government’s attacks on the Catholic Church, he was arrested. He endured electric shocks of the head and mouth, wooden splinters under his finger and toe nails, and salt in the lacerations they inflicted on his body. An execution squad finally murdered him and eighteen other clergy and laymen in a muddy ditch of a vineyard near Shkordra.

The silent suffering of the Albanian people, so long ignored by the world, continues under Hoxha’s designated successor. Since 1944, the victims of the official persecution include two archbishops, five bishops, an abbot, sixty-five diocesan priests, thirty-three Franciscans, fourteen Jesuits, ten seminarians, eight nuns, and innumerable lay Catholics – not to mention the countless Orthodox and Muslim victims.

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Tags: Christianity Pope John Paul II Albania Atheism