Saturday, 1 December 2012


A Trip to Albania, Postscript

In spite of Enver Hoxha's attempt to make Albania “the world's first atheist state,” religious life in the country has experienced a revival since the fall of communism. The Orthodox Church, under the guidance of the extraordinary Archbishop Anastasios has rebuilt its administrative structure, ordained priests and rebuilt many of the churches destroyed during the communist era. Among these was the Cathedral in Korcë. The original Cathedral of the Life-Giving Spring was turned into a museum during the communist era and the Church was refused permission to restore it. After a long struggle, the Church was offered a plot of land in a poor location. Following an argument with the local government, even this was taken away but within a short time another plot was offered in a prime location in the city centre next to the city hall! As Metropolitan Joani says, “For us, this was a miracle. We could not have asked for a better place to build our cathedral.” Another success in Korcë was the restoration of the Metropolis offices to their original role after they had been  used as a communist party youth training centre for thirty years.
Korcë Cathedral

On my first morning in Korcë, I went to Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral. As the chanter recited the prayers, I was astonished to hear a full choir sing the responses in the Russian style. Since there was no sign of a choir or organ, I thought at first that it was a recording (!) but discovered later that there is a special choir loft. The effect was so heavenly and beautiful that a very large lump was brought to my throat. I later found out that Vasko, mentioned last week, is the choirmaster at the cathedral and was responsible for the beautiful music. Because of the persecution under Hoxha, there is a fervour and passion about those who still attend church that is extremely moving. Certainly, when the whole congregation joined in the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, I was conscious of a sincerity that is often absent in countries where it is easier to be a Christian.

The new Tirana Cathedral

On my return to Tirana, I had a day to spare and was able to see a little more of the resurrection of Albanian religious life. In 1964, the Orthodox Cathedral was demolished for the building of a five storey hotel. The small Cathedral of the Holy Annunciation was built to replace it but was closed in 1967 and turned into a gym! It was restored to its proper use in 1990 but a new cathedral is now being built with the assistance of Albanian churches in the USA. The design of this has been criticised by many - 'a nuclear power station' and 'a tragedy in the making' are two comments I've read. However, although I'm no lover of modern architecture in general, now it is near completion, I find it an inspiring sight. The clock tower in particular certainly lifts the soul to heaven. Look at the pictures and tell me what you think.

Although my book is mainly concerned with the persecution of religion under Enver Hoxha, the story of the resurrection of the Albanian Orthodox Church is inspiring and equally interesting. I recommend two books which tell the story in a readable way: “The Resurrection of the Church in Albania” by Jim Forest and “Go Forth” by Fr. Luke Veronis.

On a more secular note, it was interesting to see some of the old communist era statues, stored behind the art gallery in Tirana. It is probably the only place in Europe where you can still see statues of Lenin and Stalin, although when I was there these were covered with plastic sheeting to protect them from the weather. As part of Hoxha's attempt to keep the masses in order, party propaganda claimed that the country was always under threat of attack by NATO, the Warsaw Pact or Yugoslavia. To ram the message home, 750,000 concrete bunkers were built around the country, one for every four of the population! Many of these still remain but the enduring legacy of this policy is that the souvenir shops are full of ash-trays in the shape of bunkers. Intriguingly, the only other popular souvenirs seemed to be coffee mugs portraying either Enver Hoxha or Mother Theresa. 

Next Week: Doubting Thomas

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