5 January 2016
Orthodox Christians light candles as they celebrate Orthodox Easter during a midnight liturgy at the cathedral in Korca, Albania. (photo: Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images)
The creation of the Orthodox Church of Albania began not in remote Albania — a nation in southeastern Europe — but in Boston, Massachusetts. There, in 1908, free from the constraints of Ottoman Turkish oppression and Greek domination, Albanian-American Orthodox Christians formed an ethnic Albanian church, Byzantine in ethos and Orthodox in faith. Four 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 Christian community has suffered greatly, 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 greet 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, but all Albanians, Tosks and Ghegs, descended from Christian families who 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 2.9 million people practice some form of religious faith. Muslims — primarily Sunnis or Bektashi, a Sufi sect — dominate the religious landscape, followed by Orthodox and Catholic Christians.
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