Albanians Rediscover God, If Not Old-Time Religion

The Albanian Orthodox church in Shkoder draws large crowds to services, as do many of the city's mosques and Catholic and Protestant churches.
The Albanian Orthodox church in Shkoder draws large crowds to services, as do many of the city's mosques and Catholic and Protestant churches. (Mary Jordan - Twp)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

SHKODER, Albania -- The Catholic cathedral that communists turned into a basketball arena for two decades is now busier than ever, drawing more than 2,000 people to a single Sunday Mass. An ornate Albanian Orthodox church with three grand, peach-colored domes is readying for Easter celebrations and popular midnight candlelit processions. And a few days ago, the latest of more than 50 mosques in the area opened with fanfare and a call to prayer.

In a country that once officially outlawed God, religion is back -- but in a different way than before the long experiment in godlessness. Many Albanians have resumed spiritual practices with a faith strengthened by the years of suppression. At the same time, new practices and beliefs are being planted by a wave of foreign missionaries and money, making this tiny Adriatic country a remarkable example of the globalization of religion.

Albanians "are happy to have religion back," said the Rev. Zef Pllumi, 83, a Catholic priest who spent 25 years in prison for his beliefs. Many people here welcome the foreign attention, saying the country needed the outside help. But Pllumi sees risks in the outside influence. "Foreigners don't know our tradition, and many of those who study abroad come back with fundamentalist ideas," he said.

In cities across this mountainous country, new houses of worship gleam alongside dreary Soviet-style apartment blocks like shiny gems, nearly all built with money from individuals and organizations in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, the United States, Greece, Italy and a long list of other nations.

Christian missionaries and Muslim imams have arrived in large numbers, hoping to attract new followers among the population of 3.5 million. Libya, Egypt, Malaysia and other Muslim countries have paid for hundreds of Albanians to study religion in their countries and return here to teach. Many of Albania's top religious leaders come from abroad -- one Catholic archbishop is Italian, another is a former New Yorker, and the head of the Orthodox Church is Greek.

In Albania, once one of the most closed countries in the world, some farmers still depend on horse-drawn carts to traverse the many rutted roads. There is no McDonald's, and Internet access is a luxury. Outside this lakeside city, the idiosyncratic "pillboxes" -- tiny, one-man bunkers built to protect against an invasion that never came -- dot hills and farmland.

But so do houses painted lime, tangerine, purple and other bright colors, a statement by people with new freedom to own something and to be different in a land that was once uniformly gray.

Albania became the first officially atheist country in the world in 1967. Its dictatorial ruler, Enver Hoxha, ordered all churches and mosques demolished or converted into sports arenas, warehouses or other secular facilities. He shut the borders. And, until communism collapsed in 1990, public expressions of faith were banned.

Ilija Kavaja recalled that it was forbidden even to say "Merry Christmas."

"We felt so cut off from the world," said Kavaja, an engineer in this city of about 80,000, where sidewalk vendors sell piles of old, worn shoes near new, European-style cafes. He described how he used to dress in a suit on Sundays and walk the streets of Shkoder praying silently to himself, not a pew left in the country.

In the early 1990s, after the return of religious freedom, Kavaja joined others at outdoor services. Today he worships in a five-year-old Orthodox church built mainly with money from Greece. One recent Sunday, he climbed the spotless white steps to attend a service in which a priest in golden robes stood at the altar in a cloud of incense and raised the Bible high.

Kavaja delights in bringing his daughter, Ilvana, 12, with him, grateful for the tens of millions of dollars from abroad that have poured into this country roughly the size of Maryland to give him and others new places to worship. Standing on the church steps, wearing a white scarf and white stockings, Ilvana listened to her father recalling an attempt to wipe out religion so thorough that even a prayer at a burial was forbidden. She said she couldn't imagine that now. "It makes me feel safe when I pray," she said.

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