Christianity arrived in Albania before the 4th century from two directions. The Ghegs in the north of the country became Latin Christians, while the Byzantine tradition was predominant among the Tosk people in the south. Following the Turkish conquest in the 15th century, the majority of Albanians became Muslim. Under Ottoman rule, the remaining Orthodox population of Albania was integrated into the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and all Orthodox religious services, instruction and cultural activities were conducted in Greek.
The first Orthodox community to use Albanian in the liturgy was in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, in 1908 among a group of Albanian immigrants led by Fr Fan Noli (1882-1965). Noli had prepared his own translation of the liturgy into Albanian, and used it during a tour of several major cities of Europe in 1911. Soon after Albanian independence in 1912, Fan Noli traveled to Albania where he would be ordained a bishop and become the head of the church, whose independence he strongly supported. He also became an influential political figure. He would even serve briefly as prime minister for five months in 1924, until his government was overthrown and he went into permanent exile.
In 1922 a government-sponsored church congress in Berat had proclaimed the autocephaly of the Albanian Orthodox Church and adopted a church constitution that was later sanctioned by the government. But it was only in 1929 that King Zog asked two bishops in the country to ordain three more bishops, thus creating a five-member Holy Synod which again declared autocephaly. Constantinople reacted by deposing the Albanian bishops, and a de facto schism ensued. The impasse was broken only in 1936 when the Albanian government proposed naming Metropolitan Kristofor Kissi, who had strong ties to Constantinople, as the new primate. In response, the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized the autocephalous status of the Albanian Orthodox Church and regularized the situation with a patriarchal Tomos on April 12, 1937.
During the interwar period, aside from the Archbishopric of Tirana, there were Orthodox dioceses in Berat, Argyrokastro (Gjirokaster), and Korytsa (Korce). Greek was still widely used in the liturgy, but a process of preparing new translations of the texts into Albanian began in 1930. Parishes were allowed to choose the language they preferred. An Orthodox seminary was founded at Korytsa in 1937.
The communist revolution of 1945 marked the beginning of savage persecution of all religious groups in Albania. By this time the country’s population was approximately 22% Orthodox and 10% Catholic. A number of influential Orthodox clergy were executed, and in 1949 Archbishop Kristofor Kissi of Tirana was deposed. By 1951 all the Orthodox bishops had been replaced by men acceptable to the regime.
The Albanian government eventually took much stronger measures against religion than other governments in Eastern Europe. In 1967 the communist regime announced that all religious edifices in Albania, including 2,169 churches, mosques, monasteries and other institutions, were being closed and that all religious practices were now illegal. In the same year, Archbishop Damianos of Tirana was sent to prison where he died in 1973.
When the communist government in Albania began to disintegrate in 1990, the long period of religious persecution came to an end. Since no Albanian Orthodox bishops had survived, in January 1991 the Ecumenical Patriarchate appointed Metropolitan Anastasios of Androusis, a Professor at the University of Athens, as Patriarchal Exarch in Albania. It was his task to oversee the process of the canonical reconstruction of the autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church. On June 24, 1992, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate elected Anastasios as Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania and named three other bishops (also Greek nationals) for the remaining Orthodox dioceses in the country. Although the government did not recognize the appointment of the other three bishops, Anastasios was enthroned the following August. In July 1996 the Ecumenical Patriarchate proceeded to the ordination of the three other bishops it had named for Albania. But the government refused to allow them to enter the country and insisted that ethnic Albanians be appointed to those positions.
The position of Archbishop Anastasios as head of the Albanian Orthodox Church was threatened in late 1994. In October President Berisha stated that the Archbishop had only been appointed temporarily, and the government proposed a new draft constitution which required that the heads of large religious communities be Albanian citizens who were born in the country and who had resided there for at least 20 years. But when the referendum on the new constitution was held on November 6th, it was defeated by 60% of the vote. By December relations between the Orthodox Church and the state had improved, but the position of the Archbishop still seemed uncertain. Tension between the Greek and Abanian governments over the status of the Greek minority in the country complicated the position of the Archbishop, who is an ethnic Greek. The 1989 census indicated that there are just under 60,000 Greeks in Albania, but the great majority of the Orthodox in the country were ethnic Albanians.
The impasse over the appointment of new Albanian Orthodox bishops was resolved in 1998. With the mutual consent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Orthodox Church of Albania and the Albanian government, two of the previously ordained bishops resigned their offices, and one of them (Metropolitan Ignatios of Berat) was enthroned on July 18th. On the same day, Archbishop Anastasios and Metropolitan Ignatios met in extraordinary session with two representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and elected two new ethnic Albanian bishops: Archimandrite John Pelushi (43 years old) was elected Metropolitan of Korça, and Fr. Kosma Qirjo (77 years old) was elected Bishop of Apollonia. Thus a canonical Albanian Orthodox Holy Synod was formed. In 2000, Bishop Kosma died, leaving only three bishops in the country. On November 11, 2006, the Holy Synod elected three archimandrites to the episcopate. They were consecrated before the end of the year, raising the number of Albanian Orthodox bishops to six. By 2020 the church had six dioceses served by eight bishops. In 2006 a new Constitution of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania was adopted.
Since the church was reestablished in 1991, about 150 new churches have been constructed, and 160 of the 324 churches and monasteries that were confiscated by the communist regime have been rebuilt or renovated. By 2012 there were 460 parishes in the country. The construction of the new Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana was completed in 2011; it is now the third largest Orthodox church in Europe. Over 70 other buildings have been constructed to serve as youth centers, hospitals, preschools, soup kitchens, etc.
In March 1992 the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy was opened in an abandoned hotel in Durrës, where about 60 young men began to study for the priesthood. The seminary moved into newly constructed quarters at St. Vlash Monastery in Durrës in late 1996. Ecclesiastical high schools have also been established in Gjirokastër and Sukth. When the communist government fell there were only 22 surviving Orthodox priests in the country; only three of them were still alive in 2003. By 2012 about 150 members of the clergy were serving the Church in various capacities.
A monthly official church periodical, Ngjallia (“Resurrection”), began publication in October 1992, and in 1997 an Orthodox radio station with the same name began broadcasting. Several other publications have also appeared, including a monthly children’s magazine, a student bulletin, and a theological journal called Kërkim (“Research”).
According to the official 2011 Albanian census, Orthodox Christians made up 6.75% of the population, or less than 200,000 individuals. In 2012 the Albanian Orthodox Church rejected these statistics because of the methodology used for registration of religious affiliation, and claimed to have evidence that the number of Orthodox Christians in Albania exceeds 24% of the population. It declared that the census results were “totally incorrect and unacceptable.”
The Orthodox Church of Albania joined the World Council of Churches in 1994, and Archbishop Anastasios served as a President of the WCC from 2006 to 2013. The church is also a member of the Conference of European Churches. Pope John Paul II visited Albania in April 1993 and Pope Francis in September 2014. On both occasions the pope met with Archbishop Anastasios along with the heads of other religious communities in the country.
In 2020, Archbishop Anastasios was honored with the Klaus Hemmerle Prize in Germany for his contribution to interreligious efforts for peace and harmony. The prize is awarded every two years by the Focolare Movement. According to the press release, the jury “praised Archbishop Anastasios for being a peacemaker and a bridge-builder between Muslims and Christians, as well as Christian churches. His tireless commitment to ecumenical dialogue, education, health and development, especially for youth in Albania, is known to have had a strong impact on the integration of Albania and a united Europe.”
In North America there are two Albanian Orthodox jurisdictions. The Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese in America is an ethnic diocese within the Orthodox Church in America. It has 11 parishes and is currently administered by Metropolitan Tikhon, the Primate of the OCA. The diocesan chancery is at 517 East Broadway, South Boston, Massachusetts 02127-4415. The Albanian Orthodox Diocese in America (6455 Silver Dawn Lane, Las Vegas, NV 89118), is headed by Bishop Ilia of Philimelion. It has parishes in Chicago, South Boston, Las Vegas and Scarborough, Ontario, and is under the spiritual care of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Location: Albania, small diaspora
Head: Metropolitan Anastasios (born 1929, elected 1992)
Title: Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania
Residence: Tirana, Albania