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The crisis in Albania from the perspective of a missionary priest of the Orthodox Church of Albania
by Luke Veronis
April 2, 1997. Recent events in Albania can only be described as madness—senseless destruction, meaningless deaths, countless injuries, overwhelming despair, and a continual fear and uncertainty for the future.
I recall words of wisdom Archbishop Anastasios, the head of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, shared with me several times over the past three years. Whenever we experienced some frustrating difficulty or setback, he would say, “Remember, Albania was a country that Satan controlled for 50 years. Don’t think that he is going to sit back and allow us to bring the light of Christ into this land without a fight.”
As our work progressed, however, I often forgot this wisdom. Unfortunately over the past month, Satan’s evil has returned with a force few could have imagined.
Recently I visited the local military hospital. Dirt lies everywhere. Plaster falls from the walls. Windows and doors are broken. Flies buzz around. Beds are rusty. Mattresses have only half the foam in them. Medical attendants, doctors, nurses, and visitors smoke everywhere, even in the operating room.
The first person we met was Eda, a seven-year-old girl with a bullet in her stomach. Six days earlier she was playing in the garden outside her house, when a bullet that had been shot into the air fell and hit her. The same day three other children in her neighborhood were killed. One of the children, a two-year-old girl, was sleeping at home when a bullet came through the window and went through her head.
On another visit to the hospital, we heard the screams of Bektashi, a 12-year old who three days earlier was playing with a friend. They were playing with explosives, and one went off and burned Bektashi’s entire side and arm. Forty children were in the hospital with similar burns. In another room lay a boy with an amputated leg; a bullet had hit a main artery and the doctors had to amputate. Hundreds of injured people filled the hospital, most of them suffering needlessly.
The physical suffering is only part of the picture. There is also the economic devastation. Friends of ours, Kristina and her family, wonder every day how they will survive. Five months ago their family moved to Tirana from the northern city of Shkodra. Though they sold their house, they did not have enough money to buy a new one in Tirana. So they decided to invest all their money, including money one son had saved as an immigrant worker in Greece, with one of the “promising” investment firms that were the talk of Albania. Kristina’s family figured that if they received the 100 percent return as promised within four months, they would have enough money to buy a simple two-room apartment. Instead, the company folded two months ago, and now Kristina and her family have no money and no house. They have nowhere to go.
People around the world are wondering what happened in Albania. International news has shown the violence and destruction of the past month. For many, it is the first time they have ever heard of Albania.
After 500 years of subjugation under the Ottoman Empire, and a brief period of independence during the early part of the century, Albania endured 45 years of the most oppressive Communist regime in the world, under which it existed in total isolation from the outside world. Albania even broke ties with her former Communist allies—first Yugoslavia, then the Soviet Union, then China. Each time, President Enver Hoxha claimed that the break was necessary because his country’s former allies betrayed the hard-line Marxist-Leninist path by becoming too liberal.
During this period of darkness, Albania became the first and only country in the world to totally ban all forms of religious expression. Before communism was introduced, 69 percent of Albanians were Muslims, 21 percent were Eastern Orthodox, and 10 percent Roman Catholic. In 1967, the state publicly declared from her governmental platforms that all forms of religion ceased to exist. One example that shows the impact of such oppression was the destruction of the Orthodox Church. Most of the 1,604 churches and monasteries were destroyed or totally neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair—or were turned into sports halls, clubs or storage depots. The number of Orthodox clergy in the early 1940s was 440; it declined to 333 by the mid 1960s. By 1990, when the country finally opened up, only 22 priests survived, all over the age of 70. Today, there are 7 left.
Things began to change with the fall of the Communist government in 1990. Albania, the last of the European Communist governments to collapse, finally opened up to the outside world and discovered that it was in the dark ages—politically and economically. Over the following six years, the country began to take concrete steps to bring itself into the twentieth century. With democratic elections, foreign investments entering the country, freedom of religion, and an opening up of society, Albania appeared to be on the right path.
Much of the progress, however, may be destroyed with the present national tragedy. Seeds of the present crisis began to clearly appear during the questionable elections of May 1996. International observers concurred that the national elections were filled with fraud and corruption. The results left many Albanians questioning the validity of the democratic process here. Then, in the summer and fall of 1996 there was both a great increase in the number of questionable investment companies in Albania and an unusually large participation of families in them. These pyramid schemes promised outrageous returns on investments. Some companies even promised 300 percent interest within a three or four month period! Although some of the bigger companies had operated in Albania for more than four years, their popularity increased mainly during the second half of 1996, when some experts estimate that as many as 80 percent of Albanian families invested in these schemes.
In December 1996 and January 1997, some of these companies collapsed and tens of thousands of Albanian families fell into a desperate economic situation. Many families lost their life savings. Some families had sold their houses in hope of investing the money and getting a greater return. Now they had no money, and not even a house in which to live. Many families, like Kristina and her family, mentioned earlier, lost all the money their children had saved working as immigrants abroad.
My dear friend Jani has three sons who have worked in Athens for the past five years. They had saved $40,000 with the sweat only immigrants can understand, and invested it all in the firms. Now they have nothing.
Kristaq, a student from our seminary, sold his 120 sheep and invested the money. Like many of his fellow villagers who invested, he now has nothing but his house and land.
Suicides have been on the rise. A woman from Pogradec had invested all her family’s money without the knowledge of her husband. When the investment company folded, she felt she couldn’t tell her husband and stepped in front of an oncoming train. Such stories are countless.
While outsiders may be critical of these reckless investments, the situation here simply shows the desperation, hope and naiveté of Albanians. People on a pension received forty dollars a month, which isn’t enough to buy food and pay for electricity. Many saw such investment firms as their only hope. They sold their houses and invested money simply in hopes of having extra money to supplement their meager pension. Once they got their return, they would again buy a house. Others moved from villages or smaller cities to Tirana in hopes of a better life. The money they received from selling their houses wasn’t enough to buy a house in Tirana. So they invested the money, figuring that for six months they could lived in crowed quarters with a relative, and then receive their return and buy a small house in Tirana. Now they have no money and no house.
The government supported and publicized these investment firms. Many remember what President Sali Berisha said six months earlier on national television: “This money [returns from the companies] is the cleanest money there is.” The President was often seen on television with the presidents of the various investment firms. Many people felt that the government knew very well what type of firms these companies were and had a responsibility to warn the people of their risk. Instead, the country’s leaders downplayed the risk and encouraged all Albanians to take part.
After the collapse of the pyramid schemes many people fell into despair and anger. They became furious and this led to the chaos that overwhelmed Albania. Anarchy reigned. Chaos began in the southern city of Vlore, where citizens protested in the streets against the government. Students at the university began a hunger strike. When the secret police tried to stop the strikers and protesters, the citizens rose up in response. Breaking into army depots, they armed themselves and slowly took control of the entire south. In a matter of several days, the government lost control of the country. The army ceased to function. Police left their posts. Most army depots throughout the country were opened and looted. Vandals opened all the prisons and freed more than 1,700 prisoners. Shops, food depots, factories, schools, and other institutions were looted and destroyed. The Agriculture University, with its library of 150,000 books, was set on fire. People sold machine guns for as little as five dollars. Madness reigned.
In the capital of Tirana, we fortunately experienced the madness in its fullest form only briefly. For three days, we heard continual machine-gun fire. The foreign embassies evacuated most of their citizens. My wife Faith, along with many of our coworkers and friends, were evacuated by U.S. Marine helicopters. Within the Orthodox Church, only a handful of expatriate workers remained. We chose to stay as a sign of our solidarity with our Albanian brothers and sisters to minister to their spiritual needs during this uncertain time and to begin preparing for the massive relief work that will be necessary.
Although the three days of constant fear ceased, an atmosphere of apprehension and despair has encompassed the city and country. While the majority of the country is in anarchy, without police, and in constant fear of bandits, Tirana lives with the dread of the unknown. Life on the streets has slowly returned to an outward normalcy. Shops have reopened, but with inflated prices. People walk around during the day. Cars and the usual horse and carriages traverse the city streets. But an uneasiness and uncertainty remain. Schools remain closed. A forced curfew from 7p.m. to 7a.m. continues. Sporadic gunfire can be heard, especially at night. Children play with guns. One day as I walked out of my apartment, a neighborhood boy, 10 years old, offered me some of the hundreds of bullets he had.
Leaders accept no blame, choosing instead to place responsibility on invisible foes. On television they see the head of the secret police inform the parliament that “foreign elements” are the only cause of all the problems facing the country. This reminds many Albanians of former Communist times.
The widespread madness—the looting, the senseless destruction, the hundreds of needless deaths, and the thousands of injuries—has shocked the people. They are asking how this could happen, and what has gotten into the hearts of its people. Many believe that certain forces created this anarchy—the Mafia, the 1,700 freed criminals, the secret police—but common citizens also took part in the chaos.
The situation has reminded me of the evil that exists within all of us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “The line of good and evil does not run between countries or ethnicities, but it runs through the heart of every person.” As I reflect on this country, how true that statement appears. Scenes here remind me of what happened in Los Angeles in 1992. We are all capable of such evil, and we must take care.
The answer for Albania is not simply a change of the political system, but a radical change in people’s hearts, the transformation that occurs in a sincere conversion to Christ. After seeing this chaos, we as the Church must recommit ourselves to help people encounter Christ in the depths of their hearts. That is the only change that can give us the power to overcome the evil within, and to have hope in the face of such oppressive despair.
The Church in Albania
Christianity in Albania has roots in the first century. St. Paul mentions a visit to Illyricum (Rom 15:19), from which Albania traces its roots. According to Church tradition, the first bishop of Durrachium (modern-day Durres) was St. Caesar, one of the 70 apostles sent out by Christ. He passed on church leadership to St. Asti, who became a martyr in the latter part of the first century under Emperor Trajan. Bishops from the dioceses of Durres, Shkodra, Apollonia and Byllis took part in the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 432. In every century since the first century Christianity grew in Albania—up until the Ottoman conquest in the 1400s.
Although five centuries of Ottoman Muslim rule weakened the Christian faith, committed believers and martyrs continued to persevere. A remnant of Albanian Christians overcame economic, social and physical persecution. In certain areas, crypto-Christians held on to the faith in the secrecy of their homes, even though in their outward appearance they accepted Muslim names and practices. Today, these villages continue to remember their past perseverance for the faith.
Statistics taken before World War II revealed that although 69 percent of the population claimed an Islamic tradition, 21 percent still held on to their Eastern Orthodox faith, and 10 percent remained Roman Catholic. Such faith, however, was severely tested during the following 45 years of fanatical atheistic persecution.
With the fall of communism, and hardline atheism, the Orthodox Church has worked tirelessly at resurrecting her ancient Church. Over the past six years, more than 400 church communities with church councils have been reestablished. An office of technical services has overseen the construction of 67 new churches and 15 new chapels, the reconstruction of 63 old churches, and the repair and restoration of 50 other churches. A three-year theological seminary preparing students for the priesthood opened in the spring of 1992. Archbishop Anastasios, the head of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, has ordained more than 80 of the graduates, and another 49 students are presently studying at the new, two-million dollar Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Theological School in St. Vlash, Durres.
The Church organized a “Diaconia Agape” office in 1992. This social branch of the Church seeks to express God’s sacrificial love for all humanity, irrespective of race or religion. It especially works with the poor and marginalized, to develop hope, confidence, self-initiative and concrete solutions to their critical needs. During the critical period from 1992 to 1993, this office delivered millions of dollars of emergency relief. By 1994, its focus changed to developmental and health projects. Its budget for the current year exceeds $700,000. During its five years of existence it has helped more than 50,000 families in need.
Other church ministries include publication and catechism offices which have published more than 20 different books, and a monthly church newspaper. There also is a concerted effort to organize youth groups, women’s groups and intellectual groups throughout the country.
From the beginning of the effort to revive the Church here, Archbishop Anastasios has used a variety of international co-workers. He has given a directive to all these missionaries to work alongside native Albanians, training, cultivating and aiding the believers there to take over leadership roles. Currently, there are 21 long-term Orthodox missionaries, mainly from Greece and the United States. This includes three married priests and two of their wives, five priest-monks and one other monk, four nuns, four single laywomen, two laymen and two missionary children. Other short-term workers have included Orthodox who are Albanian-American, English, Finnish, Russian and Kenyan.
—Fr. Luke Veronis
Fr. Luke Veronis grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he was a member of Annunciation Orthodox Church. Since January 1994, he has served as a missionary priest and teacher, together with his wife Faith, for the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania. Previously, he served as a missionary in East Africa for one and a half years.