Let us put it this way: in our Church, in almost 25-30% of the marriages we celebrate, one of the partners does not come from an Orthodox background, so we have a lot of people joining our Community though baptism. In this case we are not speaking of a real conversion from another religion, because these people simply identified themselves with their religious background but were not believers nor did they practice any religion. This can apply also to my personal life, since I myself do not come from an orthodox background, though at that time we didn’t know much about religion. I was 22 when the regime collapsed. I had always felt an attraction to Christianity and monastic life and I started to frequent the Church from an early age. This was very common in those days: there was a lot of curiosity and eagerness to know about religion, it was all new to us. To some extent this is true also today for the youth, they are searching and need to know more.
On the other side, there is still a need for religious education and information, since old generations were prevented from learning and practicing religion. Even 25 years after the fall of Communism the mentality and the way of thinking hasn’t changed much. There is much work to be done, especially with the young generation that are confronted with many challenges and need to be prepared to face them in the right way and with the right spirit.
What was the situation of the Orthodox Church when the regime ended?
The situation was full of despair. All our bishops had died and only a handful of priests had survived. Some of them were not in a condition to serve the many needs that exploded at that time. The only hope was from the outside and especially from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is our mother Church and from which we gained our independence (autocephality). At that time, 1991-1992, the Patriarchate of Constantinople sent as Exarch His Grace the Metropolitan of Ilioupolis and Theira, Anastasios, the present Archbishop, to see the situation here and start to organize the Church. One of the first things he did was to open the orthodox seminary in order to educate and prepare the new generation of clergy. But there were no structures left from the Communist regime and we had to rent an old hotel on the beach, until we had our own complex in Saint Vlash near Durres.
The fact that the Exarch was of Greek origin aroused suspicions among some people here because of some conflicts in the past among the countries, which unfortunately have proved difficult to overcome, creating unnecessary tension even within the Church; but fortunately this is a minority. In June 1992 he was elected by the Patriarchate of Constantinople as Archbishop of Tirana and all Albania, and by 1998 we had already established a Synod and later on other bishops were ordained. Today we are 8 bishops, four of them Albanians. During these 24 years, under the leadership of Archbishop Anastasios and the Holy Synod, many things have been achieved. Around 150 new Albanian priests were educated and ordained and are serving all around the country, in 400 parishes. Many new churches, about 168, were build and cathedrals in the main cites. 70 churches and monasteries were restored and 160 churches have been reconstructed. The Orthodox Church has today a very vivid presence and offers its contribution in the fields of health care, education, agricultural development, cultural initiatives etc.
The experience of reconstructing a church almost from nothing could have an impact on ecclesiology, the traditional stumbling block between Catholics and Orthodox. The Church in Albania is autocephalous, but when the persecution was over, it needed to address an external instance to re-build itself, since no Bishop was left. Catholics turned to Rome and John Paul II ordained the first Bishops during his 1993 visit. The Orthodox asked Constantinople for help. Does this not mean that a local Church, gathered around his Bishop, cannot subsist without the reference to a higher reality?
In the ecclesiastical understanding we are One Church, not a confederation of separated Churches. Do we not say in the Creed “We believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”? It is true that in some local Orthodox Churches there is a tendency to assume a very narrow point of view. But this was not our experience in Albania, perhaps owing to our recent history. The Archbishop’s concern was always about missiology from the very days of his formation in Greece. When ordained a priest in 1964, he left his country and spent many years in East Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. He insisted that the Orthodox Churches should not forget the last Commandment of Christ: “Go and make disciples of all nations”. In Africa he tried to establish a local Church with local leaders. And from Africa he was called to Albania. He has not lost his missionary sense and he has established as his will that 10% of the revenues of our Church are to be distributed to the neediest Orthodox Churches in the world.
He was also very clear on the fact that the Orthodox Church in Albania is one. In addition to the faithful of Albanian origin, we have some communities of Greek and Slavic tradition. They are allowed to celebrate in their own languages, but they are part of the Albanian Church and do not refer to Athens or Belgrade.
In Ecumenism one can often observe a sort of paradox. The relations between the representatives of the Churches are usually very good as persons, but this does not correspond yet to a real advance in theological dialogue.
For us it is important and a priority to have good friendship on a personal level. It is not enough to get involved in theological and ethical discussions. On the other side, because of the many problems created from the previous regime and the many needs that each religious community has here in Albania, we have been more focused on our own situations and difficulties. This was fortunately possible because of the good religious climate we enjoy here in the country, where people respect each other despite their various beliefs. So there were no real issues to confront on inter-religious grounds and we have been more focused on the spiritual needs of our faithful. Nonetheless, we as a Church are much involved also in the international level. The Archbishop is an honorary president of “Religions for Peace”. He was also President of the “World Council of Churches” and we also take part in the different interfaith Conferences as the one organized by Sant’Egidio.
What do you think of the visit of Pope Francis? Was it just a formal visit by the Head of the Catholic Church?
Certainly not. Pope Francis made people felt respected and valued, while usually Albanians see themselves on the margins of Europe. There was a good atmosphere. For us Orthodox it was a reason for joy that the Papal visit came after the inauguration of our new Cathedral in Tirana and the visits of many Orthodox Primates, a high point for our Church. In a way, Tirana and Albania became, at least for two days, the center for Orthodox and Catholics alike.
And yet the exact dimension of the Orthodox Church is controversial.
The census of the year 2011 is a disputed matter, and we have shown very clearly how the numbers that came from it do not reflect reality. This census gave only a 6,7% of Orthodox in Albania, whereas all previous estimates, from the Italian period and before, gave more than 20%. The same thing happened also for the Bektashis who were dramatically underestimated too: from 14% in the Italian census, now they are declared to be around 2%. All the atmosphere before the Census was very tense, because of some extreme nationalistic parties who were very much against the declaration of religious affiliation, and more exactly, of the Orthodox one. This resulted in a mass boycott form the Orthodox. There were also many irregularities during the Census, which we have proved very clearly by our own questionnaire. This showed that more than 60% of our believers were not visited by the people who made the registration for the census. According to our estimate the Orthodox in Albania are around 22-25% of the population. We issued a statement speaking of a “genocide of numbers”. Let’s hope that this serious mistake will be corrected. Hopefully all will really see how wrong this Census proved to be on this subject.