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The Orthodox Church of Albania

The creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Albania began not in the obscure Balkan nation of Albania, but in Boston, Massachusetts. There, in 1908, free from the constraints of Ottoman Turkish oppression and Greek domination, the Albanian-American Orthodox community formed an ethnic Albanian church, Byzantine in ethos and Orthodox in faith. Fours years later — after a rump Albanian state was carved from the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire — serious discussions surfaced in the homeland concerning the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Albania.

Since its inception a century ago, this community of faith has suffered significantly, especially during the Marxist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. In 1967, Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheistic state, targeting the country’s Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox communities equally. He jailed the nation’s Orthodox bishops and clergy; an unknown number were murdered. His henchmen shuttered monasteries and pulled down hundreds of churches, converting the remaining sanctuaries into cinemas, clubs, gymnasiums and stables. Hoxha’s campaign desolated the Orthodox Church. After his death in 1985, and the subsequent collapse of the Marxist government six years later, a representative of the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople toured the country — only 15 clergymen and a handful of laity remained to brief him.

Orthodox Christians once accounted for some 20 percent of Albania’s population; most were “Tosks,” a term that describes a collection of Albanian tribes concentrated in the southern half of the country. Latin Catholics, concentrated among the “Ghegs” in the north, included about 10 percent of the population. Muslims dominated both groups, and all descended from Catholic or Orthodox tribes that embraced Islam after the Ottomans began to subdue the Balkans in the 15th century.

Today, most Albanians, while conscious of the cultural, religious and tribal identities of their forebears, remain largely aloof from religion. About a third of Albania’s 3.6 million people identify themselves as believers. Muslims — primarily Sunnis or Bektashi, a Sufi sect — dominate the religious landscape, followed by Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

The Orthodox Church of Albania boasts some 640,000 members, an inflated figure according to most experts. Yet, there is no question the church is resurgent. Led by Greek-born Metropolitan Anastasios, the church has since its reestablishment in 1991 reconstructed five monasteries, built 90 churches and restored more than 140 others. A number of institutions, including schools and clinics, youth camps and student hostels, seminaries and vocational centers, have been created. In addition, the church is also engaged in multimedia, running a radio station and publishing a number of periodicals in Albanian and Greek, including a newspaper. The renascent church, however, still faces enormous socio-political challenges.

Origins. While little evidence survives, historians believe the Gospel arrived in what is today Albania by the middle of the first century. Among the first converts to the new faith were Roman soldiers from the eastern frontier of the empire. As they traveled west, so, too, did the Gospel. The Roman port of Dyrrhachium (now the Albanian city of Durrës) anchored the western terminus of the Via Egnatia, a route that linked cities and forts from Asia Minor and the Balkan interior to the Adriatic Sea and, by way of established sea routes and the Via Appia in Italy, ultimately to Rome.

In its composition, the early church in Dyrrhachium undoubtedly reflected the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman port. Martyrs and saints commemorated in the Orthodox calendar of saints, or menologion, include Greeks, Latins and Syrians. On 6 July in the year 98 A.D., one entry reads, “Asteios, bishop of Dyrrhachium, was anointed with honey and stung by bees,” dying for the faith. The following day on the calendar commemorates Peregrinus and other saints, “all of Latin origin,” who were drowned in the sea by order of the governor of Dyrrhachium.

Ecclesiastically, the church of the Balkan port was subordinate to the church of Rome via Thessalonica, the metropolitan church of the southern Balkans. Politically, the region changed hands at the end of the third century. To better manage the empire, then under siege by barbarian tribes, Emperor Diocletian partitioned it and placed Dyrrhachium and the core of the southern Balkans under the jurisdiction of the eastern emperor.

As the church evolved, the ethnically diverse Christian community of the southern Balkans gravitated to the culture, church and rites of the new capital of the Eastern Roman empire, Constantinople. Officially christened “New Rome,” the capital took on a distinct Christian identity after Emperor Theodosius I established Christianity as the state religion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 394. The “Byzantine” Christians of the southern Balkans, however, remained under the jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff.

Beginning in the sixth century, Slav tribes disrupted imperial Byzantine rule in the Balkans, invading the peninsula’s web of mountains and valleys, plains and streams. They drove out existing populations or suppressed those who remained. These tribes, which had formed loose federations, even reached Constantinople, storming its walls repeatedly. Eventually, the Slavs assimilated and embraced Christianity. Those who settled in the Balkan’s northern frontier (today’s Croats and Slovenes) adopted the Latin rites of Rome; those in the south (now the Albanians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs) embraced Byzantine forms.

In 730, in a move that would preoccupy church and state for more than a century, the Byzantine emperor, Leo III, banned the veneration of icons. This imperial decree inflamed passions and nearly dismembered the empire. It also placed Leo at odds with Pope Gregory III, who anathematized and excommunicated the emperor and his sympathizers a year later. In retaliation, the emperor confiscated valuable properties belonging to the papacy. And he unilaterally placed the Christians of the southern Balkans, southern Italy and Sicily under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople. Rome resented this loss of jurisdiction and refused to recognize its validity, sowing the seeds for the schism that would ultimately divide the churches of Constantinople and Rome.

Church of Ohrid. While the iconoclastic controversy raged, Bulgarian and Serbian princes vied for control of the Balkans, threatening Byzantine hegemony. The development of Bulgarian and Serbian states — aligned with the world of Byzantium, but frequently at odds with it — dates to this period. These political entities were not ethnic nation states as understood today, but realms that included diverse peoples, religions and tongues. The ancestors of the modern Albanians, first recognized as “Albanoi” in an 11th-century work by the Byzantine historian Michael Attaliates, were largely illiterate peasants who toiled the soil. Nevertheless, a significant number of men fought as soldiers, a few even ascended the ranks as generals or emperors.

In 1018, the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, reasserted imperial power in the Balkans. Among his many changes, the emperor established Ohrid — a major center for the non-Greek-speaking Byzantine world — as an autonomous archiepiscopal church under the ecumenical patriarchate. Basil also subordinated 32 ecclesiastical provinces to Ohrid, and defined the church’s eparchies, properties and privileges.

Basil’s archiepiscopal church of Ohrid gathered Albanian, Greek and Slav Christians under its mantle. It survived the Great Schism, which divided the Catholic West from the Orthodox East after 1054, Greek ecclesial dominance and ultimately the invasions of the Ottoman Turks beginning in the 14th century.

National Awakening. The Ottoman Turks abolished the church of Ohrid in 1767 and placed its eparchies under the Greek-controlled ecumenical patriarchate. While the church’s Slavic legacy survived, particularly in parishes with a Slavic-speaking majority, an Albanian identity (if one indeed existed) never developed.

Under Ottoman rule, Orthodox Albanians were most susceptible to proselytization by Muslims. The two primary dialects of Albanian, Gheg and Tosk, lacked an alphabet. This prevented a written transcription of Scripture, the lives of the saints and the Divine Liturgy — primary catechetical tools — into an Albanian vernacular. According to modern Orthodox authorities, however, a number of Orthodox Albanian families became kryptochristianoi (crypto-Christians in Greek). To retain their identity and faith, these Albanian families, such as the Tosks in the mountainous region of Spathia, adopted Muslim names and habits, retaining their Orthodox faith in secret. This phenomenon lasted until the late 19th century.

As mass numbers of Orthodox Albanians embraced Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries, a significant number also entered the Catholic Church, particularly in the Italian-dominated regions of the Adriatic coast. Franciscan and Jesuit schools educated community leaders and encouraged a distinct Albanian identity previously suppressed.

In 1744, Orthodoxy received a boost with the establishment of the New Academy in the city of Voskopoja. This Greek-speaking center of learning, the only institution in the Balkans to possess a printing press, dominated the intellectual life of Albanian, Greek and Slavic communities through the beginning of the 19th century.

A concerted effort in the 19th century to develop a written form of Albanian coincided with a European-wide resurgence of nationalism and ethnic identity. Ironically, most of the linguistic efforts on behalf of the Albanians were undertaken by Greek Orthodox priests and monks, who often transcribed various Albanian dialects with the aid of Greek letters.

During the last decades of the 19th century, an Albanian nationalist movement gathered steam, prompted to a considerable extent by Albanians living in Egypt, Romania and the United States. One such figure, Theophan (Fan) S. Noli (1882-1965), a Harvard-educated writer, composer and politician, came to the United States in 1906 with the express intention of organizing immigrants to work for the Albanian national cause.

After his ordination to the priesthood in Boston in 1908, Father Noli translated the Divine Liturgy into Albanian. He celebrated the liturgy in the Albanian vernacular for the first time among the Albanian immigrant communities in the United States, moving on to Europe in 1911. When Albania achieved its independence from the dying Ottoman Empire in 1912, Father Noli returned and entered parliament. In addition to his efforts to advance the Albanian nation, Father Noli worked with Albanian nationalists, Orthodox and Muslim, to set up an independent Orthodox Church.

The modern era. In 1922, a government-sponsored congress established such a church despite the objections of the ecumenical patriarch. Soon thereafter, the Serbian Orthodox patriarch consecrated Father Noli (who also served as Albania’s foreign minister) as the metropolitan archbishop of Durrës, in effect, the senior bishop of the new autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania. A year later, Metropolitan Noli led a successful coup against the government, becoming the nation’s prime minister as well.

The sudden rise of Metropolitan Noli ended just as quickly. Albania’s relations with neighboring Greece, as well as the church’s ties to the ecumenical patriarchate, soured. In addition, his reform-minded policies earned him the enmity of many Muslim landowners. Six months after his dramatic rise to power, Metropolitan Noli fled into exile. He returned to the United States in 1932 and led the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese of America until his death in 1965.

While Fan Noli’s efforts for church and state exacerbated tensions between Albanians and Greeks, he demonstrated that to be Albanian and an Orthodox Christian were not mutually exclusive. Today, despite the enormous generosity of Greek Orthodox Christians, who have largely financed the restoration of the Orthodox Church of Albania, ethnic, political and social problems remain.

But these challenges have not prevented the Orthodox Church of Albania from carrying out an aggressive campaign to rebuild the nation. The church has distributed thousands of tons of food, clothing and medicines to ease both the plight of families living in poverty as well as those seeking refuge from the Balkan’s many internecine conflicts. Health care initiatives, such as mobile dental units and polyclinics, extend care to remote mountain villages. And large- scale agricultural development projects, including irrigation works and road building, have eased the burden of Albanian families, who are considered the poorest in Europe.

The church’s “actions and presence,” writes Metropolitan Anastasios, “have shown it to be a force to be reckoned with in bringing spiritual, cultural and social progress to Albania.”

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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