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Fact Sheet: Albania

Fact Sheet: Albania

Capital: Tiranë
Chief cities: Tiranë, Durrës, Vlore and Shkodre
Population: 3.2 million (1990 estimate)
Economy: 60 percent agriculture, 40 percent industry and commerce
Languages: Albanian (Gheg and Tosk), Greck
Government: Provisional parliament
Chief religions: Traditionally Muslim (70 percent) and Christian (Orthodox – 20 percent, Catholic – 10 percent)

Descendants of Illyrian tribes, Albanians have resided in the Balkan Peninsula since the Iron Age. In the third century B.C., these tribes united and created the Illyrian kingdom, which was annexed and renamed Illyricum by the Romans in 168 A.D.

After the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Illyricum was invaded successively by the Slavs, Bulgars, Byzantines, Venetians and Serbs. By the late 14th century the Albanians were subdued by Ottoman Turks.

As the power of the Ottomans declined in the 19th century, Greek, Montenegrin and Serbian forces wrestled to dominate Albania, finally partitioning it in 1912 and installing a puppet government.

This upset the balance of power and threatened a general European conflict. Austria-Hungary, England, Italy and Russia met in London on May 30, 1913, and elected to install a German prince as ruler of an independent Albania. Serbia retained the province of Kosovo with its population of 800,000 Albanians. Presently, Kosovo is one of the autonomous states of the Yugoslav federation.

From 1924 until 1938, Albania was ruled dictatorially by Ahmed Bey Zogu, who styled himself King Zog 1. After World War II, Marxist rebels led by Enver Hoxha seized power. Immediately, the communists initiated a wave of terror, executing anyone thought to be hostile towards the regime. Though a tiny minority in Albania, the Roman Catholic Church was singled out as a major enemy and scores of its leaders were eliminated.

In 1967, the government closed all houses of worship and banned religious organizations. The constitution of 1976 banned religion altogether, making Albania the world’s first officially “atheist state.”

Religious affiliation, as it remains at least, is closely defined by ethnic divisions. Albanians are members of two tribes, the Gegs and the Tosks. Divided by the Shkumbin River, the Gegs inhabit the mountainous regions north of the river; the Tosks dwell in the southern lowlands.

The majority of Gegs and Tosks are members of the Sunni branch of Islam. A minority of the Gegs are Roman Catholic, whereas the Orthodox claim a larger minority of Tosks.

Islam absorbed Christian elements as it attempted to adapt to this once-predominantly Christian land. New members of the liberal Muslim Bektashi fellowship were received with wine, bread and cheese – a sort of holy communion.

Albanian Catholics worship in two rites, the Latin, which the communists attempted to wipe out, and the Byzantine, which survived in Italy as the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church. Byzantine Christians are mostly Orthodox.

After the complete Ottoman conquest of Albania in 1478, many Catholics fled to southern Italy and Sicily. Presently, there are approximately 70,000 Italo-Albanian Byzantine Catholics in Italy.

Following upheavals in Eastern Europe, the Albanian government last year announced a series of human rights reforms, including lifting the ban on religious practices and restoring the right to travel abroad.

The Albanian government maintains that “the question of religious belief is a matter of conscience of every individual,” but it continues its atheist propaganda.

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