HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL TRADITION
Part 5: From 1937 Onward
The canonical grant of autocephalous status by the Oecumenical Patriarchate, during the tenure of Benjamin I, was the start of a new period for the church of Albania. The Patriarchal Synodical Tome "Concerning the Blessing of the Autocephalous Status of the Orthodox church in Albania" was issued on April 17th 1937. After canonical elections at the Oecumenical Patriarchate, the first Synod comprised Christophoros, archbishop of Tirana, Dyrrachion and All Albania, and the three bishops Eulogios of Korytsa (Korēa), Agathangelos of Berat, and Panteleemon of Argyrokastron. The two metropoleis became bishoprics, while a third bishopric was formed from such parishes of the ancient metropolis of Dryinoupolis as lay within Albania. Two idiosyncrasies of the Orthodox church of Albania concealed thorny problems. Firstly, there were the ethnic origins of the Orthodox congregation: Albanians, Greeks, Vlach-speaking, and Slav-speaking. Secondly, there was the fact the Orthodox were not in the majority - as in other Balkan countries - but were only 23% of the total population. Thus the life of the church was beset in various ways by the political, ideological, and social oppositions within Albania itself, not to mention the unsettling effect of war in the region at large.
a) Italian occupation
When Italian troops entered the country on April 7th 1939, Albania became a province of Fascist Italy. Plans for parallel religious annexation were at once put into effect. At the same time as Roman Catholic missionary orders were installing themselves in various parts of the south of the country, there was an overall strategic plan to absorb the Orthodox by means of the Unia. It was emphasized in the propaganda that the cohesion of all Albanian Christians would aid the country's development, under the protection of the Vatican and the Italian state. According to some accounts, archbishop Christophoros had already agreed to joint union with the Arbėreshi of Italy; according to others, he was trying to buy time by delaying action. At all events, the lack of an absolute majority in the executive organs of the Orthodox church was enough to upset the plan for going over to the Unia, and these plans were finally abandoned with the fall of Italy in 1943.
b) Atheist persecution
After the Germans pulled out of Albania in late November 1944, the Communist regime imposed its complete control and religious persecution began. In the first twenty-three years persecution took the same classic form as it already had in Russia and the Balkans. Archbishop Christophoros was forced to leave his post, on Christmas Day 1948, and a new archbishop was put in his place, Paļsios Vonditsa, until then bishop of Korytsa, in vacancy. Permission was even given for an Assembly of Clergy and Laity of the Orthodox church to be convened, at Tirana (February 5th-lOth 1950), 50 that a new Charter could be voted in (and in some respects this Charter was an improvement on the existing one of 1929). The canonical archbishop, Christophoros, was put under house arrest, and was found dead on June 19th 1956: the official version was that he had had a heart attack. In March 1966 Paļsios left this life, and in April Damianos ascended the archiepiscopal throne. Efforts to ridicule religion and its representatives were stepped up, and to the same end the faithful, both clergy and laity, were intimidated by exile, imprisonment, and killings.
The Albanian Orthodox settled in America were split into two groups. One of these, led by Theophanes Noli and subsequently by bishop Stefan Lasko, kept up its links with the church of Albania. The other, led by the bishop of Leuke, Marko Lippa, was subordinate to the Oecumenical Patriarchate. When Noli died in March 1965, efforts were made (in 1966-1967) to reconcile the two factions, but without positive results.
On April 4th 1967 the signal was given for the persecution to become total. By a decree published on November 22nd 1967, Albania officially proclaimed itself an atheist state - the only one of its kind in the world and in history. In this state, all forms of religious expression were constitutionally forbidden. Hundreds of churches were pulled down, and many more were turned into machine shops, warehouses, stables, cinemas, or clubs. Virtually all the monasteries were destroyed or became army barracks. At this time the church of Albania still had, apart from its archbishopric, three Episcopal sees, nineteen diocesan districts, three hundred and thirty parishes, and twenty-five monasteries. Clergy were unfrocked: many of them were thrown into prison or sent into exile, and a number went to their martyrdom. Among them were the former bishop Bessarion, who was imprisoned, and the suffragan bishop of Apollonia, Eirenaios, who was exiled. Damian, the archbishop, was not persecuted: he died at his home at Pogradec (on October 18th 1973). In this totalitarian persecution, both persecutors and persecuted traditionally belonged to all ethnic and religious communities of Albania. In November 1990, yielding to international realignments, the Albanian government decided to tone down its measures against religion.
In January 1991, the Oecumenical Patriarch Demetrios and the Holy Synod appointed a professor from the University of Athens, Anastasios, bishop of Androusa, as Patriarchal exarch, his remit being to go over to Albania for first contacts with the Orthodox and the authorities of the country. The Albanian state raised objections for many months, but eventually the Patriarchal exarch reached Tirana, on July 17th 1991. As he went about the country, he could see for himself the frightful desolation caused by implacable persecution: 1608 churches and monasteries had been destroyed. In order to rebuild the ecclesiastical structure, the Patriarchal exarch convened a General Assembly of Clergy and Laity, on August 1st - 2nd 1991. Taking part in this Assembly were fifteen clergy and thirty lay-people from the ecclesiastical provinces of Albania. Four church commissioners and a General Ecclesiastical Synod were elected to provisionally represent and run the church.
On the initiative of the Oecumenical Patriarch Bartholomalos, the Synod of the Oecumenical Patriarchate took measures to re-establish the Autocephalous Orthodox church of Albania by unanimously electing, on June 24th 1992, the following: as archbishop of Tirana and All Albania the serving metropolitan bishop of Androusa, Anastasios; and as metropolitan bishops of Korytsa, Argyrokastron, and Berat with Aulon and Kanina respectively, the archimandrites Christodoulos Moustakas, Alexandros Kalpakidis, and Ignatios Triantis.
The Albanian government was strongly resistant to what it saw as the imposition from abroad of Greek leaders for one of the country's three major religious communities. The president of Albania, Sali Berisha, made no secret of his displeasure when a deputation from the Oecumenical Patriarchate visited him on July 4th 1992: it was made up of the metropolitan bishops Evangelos of Perge and Meliton of Philadelpheia, plus the protopresbyter Elias Katre, an Albanian by origin. The Albanian president finished by stating that while he was prepared to accept the installation of archbishop Anastasios, there was no question allowing all the Orthodox metropolitan bishops of Albania to be of Greek origin. The new archbishop, having sent the "Great Message" to the Phanari on July 12th 1992, was enthroned in the cathedral church of Tirana on August 2nd. Certain Albanian circles attempted to dislodge him by a series of manoeuvres. At an extraordinary Gathering of Clergy and Laity at Dyrrachion (Durrės), on January 21st 1993, the delegates were of one body in announcing that they were not prepared to put up with anything of this sort. In the autumn of 1994, there was an attempt, with the draft constitution, to remove the archbishop once and for all. This was however voted down in the referendum of November 6th 1994. In July 1996, without any new entente with the Albanian side, the consecration of the bishops elected in 1992 took place at Constantinople. The Albanian authorities categorically refused to let them enter the country and take up their posts. After dogged discussions between representatives of the Oecumenical Patriarchate, the church of Albania, and the Albanian authorities (November 1997 to July 1998), the issue of forming a Holy Synod was in the end settled by agreeing to a format whereby the Synod was made up of two church leaders of Greek origin and two of Albanian origin. The metropolitan bishop of Berat, Ignatios, was enthroned; the metropolitans Alexander of Argyrokastron and Christodoulos of Korytsa tendered their resignation; and archimandrite Joan Pelusi was elected metropolitan of Korytsa and warden Kosmas Kirio was elected bishop of Apollonia.
Despite its grievous trials and tribulations in the period from 1991 to 1998, in a climate of general political and social upheaval and national economic subsidence, the Orthodox church of Albania pulled itself together and rose from the ruins, making very swift progress, and living in "a resurrection atmosphere". In most towns and large villages with a population of Orthodox, as well as in hundreds of smaller villages, Orthodox parishes were organized from scratch.
The life of liturgy and the Mysteries generally became more and more intense, as did preaching the gospel and the practice of catechism. Youth, women's and thinkers' associations were set up. In 1992 a Theological and Priestly School went into operation, its aim being to staff the church with native Albanians. From 1997 onwards this school became a privately-owned complex of buildings (the Monastery of Hagios Blasios at Dyrrachion), with the title "The Orthodox Theological Academy-Resurrection". In 1999 there were ordinations of one hundred and ten new clergy with a High School or University education and a three-year course of University studies. In September of 1998, the "True Cross" church High School was founded at Argyrokastron, with an attached boarding-house. The nucleus for the Ardenitsa monastery was supplied by graduates of the Theological Academy. Five monasteries were rebuilt from scratch and seventy-four new churches were put up; sixty-five churches and monuments were restored; and repairs were done to more than a hundred and thirty others. Over twenty large buildings were erected, or were purchased and made good, to house metropolitan residences, schools, hostels, workshops, and clinics. Publications include the monthly Albanian language newspaper Njgjallja [Resurrection], founded in 1992; the children's magazine Ge zohu [Be glad!], founded in 1997; the student leaflet News from Orthodoxy in Albania; and liturgical, edifying, and scientific books. The church has its own printing press, radio station, and candle making and wood-carving workshops.
The Orthodox church of Albania has carried out social work across a broad range, particularly at times when the country has been in political and social crisis. Thousands of tons of foodstuffs, clothing, and medicine have been distributed to ease the plight of families in poverty and refugees. Hospital supplies, too, have been provided for towns, villages, and Albanian charities.
The church contributes to health work through the Evangelismos Diagnostic Centre at Tirana, and through polyclinics at Kavaja, Korytsa, Lushnja, and Gjorgucat, and it also runs a mobile dental unit. In the field of education it has founded, apart from the foundations mentioned earlier, seven nursery schools in large towns, youth clubs, and holiday camps. It has also set up agricultural development schemes (irrigation, family economics, road building, and so forth).
The Orthodox church of Albania is actively involved in the work of the other Orthodox churches. It has become a member of the World Synod of churches and the Assembly of European churches, and contributes generally to efforts to establish peaceful cooperation and mutual support in South-East Europe. Its actions and presence have shown it to be a force to be reckoned with in bringing spiritual, cultural, and social progress to Albania.
George A. Christopoulos, THE SPLENDOUR OF ORTHODOXY. 2000 Years History Monuments Art , Vol. II - Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches - , Ekdotike Athenon, Athens, 2000.