Beautiful Korca in southeastern Albania. (photo: courtesy of Philip D. Giantris)
Albanians are deeply devoted to Our Lady of Good Counsel. (photo: Shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Rome)
Brightly attired peasant folk dancer. (photo: Three Lions, Inc.)
Making noodles. (photo: courtesy of Philip D. Giantris)
When the Catholic Near East Welfare Association was founded in 1926, one of the countries placed in its care was Albania. This small mountainous Balkan country, about 11,000 square miles in area, is located on the eastern shores of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas between Yugoslavia and Greece. In their native language the Albanians call themselves Shqiptare, Sons of the Eagle, and their land Shqiperi, Eagles country. They are descendants of the ancient Illyrian tribes, regarded as the oldest inhabitants of Europe.
Although there is no historical record of the beginnings of Christianity in Albania, it had been introduced before the middle of the fourth century, and bishoprics had been established. During the Ottoman occupation, however, most of the Albanians were forced to embrace Islam, particularly in the lowlands and towns. Nonetheless they endured as a nation, preserving their language, customs and traditions, and in many places their Christian faith.
After gaining independence in 1912 from the Ottoman rule which had lasted for five centuries, Albania became a battlefield during World War I, and was occupied by Italy and Germany in turn during World War II. Albania regained her independence in 1944, but the government fell under the control of tough Communist rulers. The shift in power has brought about many changes.
Before the second World War, 95% of Albania was devoted to agriculture. Today it is 65% agricultural and 35% industrial. It produces one-sixth of the worlds copper, as well as smaller quantities of chrome, iron and nickel. Productivity has dropped below the prewar level in goats, sheep, horses and cattle, but has increased in the pig and fishing industries. Albania is and will continue to be self-sufficient in petroleum products as long as no private cars are allowed. At the present it suffers no lack of energy, and even provides some electrical power which is exported to neighboring Yugoslavia.
Since Albania was formerly a land of herds and farms with limited machinery and few factories, all rural and many urban Albanians once wore different multi-colored, handmade costumes of which they were very proud. The distinctive charm of these garments has now disappeared, since they have been replaced with work clothes in the soldierly style of Stalin or Mao Tse Tung. The government did not completely abolish this traditional style of dress, however; a few tailoring cooperatives were organized to fashion these outfits, which are used for theatrical purposes and during national and party folklore festivities.
The present regime in Albania established free national education, and claims to have eradicated illiteracy among those under 40 years of age. It has begun a state cooperative system and a medicare program; it has increased the exploitation of natural resources, especially timber and minerals, and enforced the abolition of private property. In order to accomplish its goals, it has used both voluntary and forced labor.
Now the government is trying to stabilize itself after a chain of broken alliances and commercial relations. Since 1944, Albania has aligned itself in turn with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China. Each agreement was later withdrawn. These shifts of loyalty have compelled Albanians to live according to stern economic necessities, almost as before, with the exception of such modern conveniences as radio, television and electricity.
The greatest changes, however, have occurred in human values and beliefs. The Sons of the Eagle are known throughout the world for their hospitality and loyalty. Bread, salt and heart is the gracious greeting Albanians will commonly extend to any traveler. Besa, the traditional word of honor, is never broken once it is given to a guest. The values represented by Besa loyalty, hospitality, and readiness to honor parents, family, the dead and the defeated all have shifted under government pressure into loyalty to the Communist party. The spirit of individualism is allowed only within party guidelines, which call instead for blind obedience.
With 68% of its population professing the faith of Islam, Albania is the only European country with a Muslim majority. The remainder are 19%, Orthodox and 13% Catholic. Between the World Wars, both Christians and Muslims were free to practice their religions; the ecumenical spirit was a fact in Albania many years before Vatical Council II convened. Although they are a minority, Albanian Catholics and particularly the clergy were admired and loved by Muslims and Orthodox for their traditionally strong patriotic and cultural spirit. The Communist government, however, set out to destroy this harmonious relationship. Jealous of the strength of influential Catholic clergy and afraid of the unity among believers, the government employed all legal and illegal means to erode the foundation of the Catholic Church and discredit her leaders. For centuries, the Albanian clergy had taught and worked with the people, establishing close ties with believers. Many visitors to Albania have noted how the Catholic clergy cared for and served people selflessly, sharing their daily joys and sorrows. This is the religious tradition which the Communists sought to shatter.
Enver Hoxha, a Muslim who led the Communist guerrilla forces during the war and became General Secretary of the party, set the stage for this program of destruction. In a secret session of the partys Central Committee, he gave the following guidelines to his subordinates: The Catholic clergy is influential .Its influence cannot be eliminated merely by administrative measures. The Catholic clergy is a well-organized body, with strong traditions and close links with the Vatican. Therefore, we should confront its organization with our better organization, and oblige it to fight on our ground. We must find the right method of struggle and appropriate tactics to use against the Catholic clergy.
Thus a vicious campaign was launched to discredit the clergy, to arrest and accuse them as Vatican spies, reactionaries and fascists, and to eliminate them physically. Many priests and laymen, some of them inspiring writers and poets, were cruelly tortured and then executed. Their books were prohibited and removed from the public schools.
In the attempt to eliminate the Church and its religious activity from the public and private lives of the people, the government finally outlawed all religious communities by decree on November 22, 1967. Religion was thus abolished by edict and force, and Albania was proclaimed the first atheistic state in the world. Ten years later, the government adopted a new Constitution which officially banishes religion. People are even required to change their names if they have any religious significance, and religious names for the newborn are prohibited.
Albania is a member of the United Nations and a signatory of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, yet for years its policies and practices have mocked the principles of this international body. The continuing conflict between believers and the atheistic government in Albania is not merely an internal affair, but an affront to all who cherish human rights and dignity. The grave situation of believers in Albania becomes even more tragic when one learns that two outstanding modern Christians, Mother Teresa and the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, are of Albanian origin.
Modern Albania remains the ideologically pure example of experimental radical Communism. Because of changed alliances, shifts in economic planning, and persistent persecution, the future of the country is considered somewhat unpredictable by foreign observers. But Albanians themselves persevere with hope, looking to the rest of the world for understanding, sympathy and help.
John Sinishta, a native Albanian, teaches at the University of San Francisco.