Albania: The First Atheist StateROBERT ROYAL
Albania is a small country that prides itself on its fierce national identity and long Christian history. But after the communist takeover 1946 tens of thousands of common people perished for religious reasons.
As early as 1945, Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator, paid indirect homage to the Albanian Church even as he described the Party’s goals: “The Catholic clergy is a well-organized body, with strong traditions and close links with the Vatican. Therefore, we should confront its organization with our better organization, confront its policy with our political line, and oblige it to fight on our ground, and not on its own.” That would involve persecution, expropriation of property, the wholesale slaughter of the Catholic leadership, and attempts to create “the first atheist state on the planet.”There was good reason to pay attention to the Church. Franciscans and Jesuits had played a major role in modern Albanian culture. The Franciscans may have arrived as early as St. Francis’s return from Syria in 1219 and they educated Albanians of all religious backgrounds. The Jesuits did not arrive until the 19th century, but they helped promote Albanian nationalism in a nation still heavily influenced by the Ottoman empire. Other orders — Salesians, Servites— established communities of nuns who ran hospitals, kindergartens, and trade schools. In sum, religious were integrated into the heart of national life.
Soon after the Communist takeover, two Franciscans (Lek Luli and Anton Harapi) and two secular priests (Lazer Shantoja and Andrea Zadeja) were summarily executed. Shantoja was so badly tortured before he died, his forearms and leg bones broken, that he could only “walk” around on elbows and knees. His own mother asked his captors to kill him. Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gjon Fausti, the seminary rector Daniel Dajani, and the Franciscan editor of Morning Star, Gjon Shllaku, were shot. The government also executed the Muslim lawyer, Muzafer Pipa, who bravely defended Jesuits and Franciscans.
A notorious instance involved Vincent Predushi, a Franciscan and Archbishop of Durres. He was a student of Albanian folklore and traditional songs. He also wrote poetry and translated some of the best poems from other European languages. But this eminence only hastened his arrest. Sentenced to 20 years, at one point he was tied up and hung from the prison bathroom ceiling. The archbishop was 65 years old at the time. Another bishop, George Volaj, of the diocese of Sappa, had the distinction of becoming the youngest bishop in the world in 1940 (at age 36) and the youngest bishop to be martyred seven years later.
An even more brutal fate awaited Father Nikoll Gazulli, a pastor in the Shkodra archdiocese. Father Gazulli fled but was tricked into returning to administer extreme unction to a dying villager. Betrayed, he was shot in the back, though not killed. As an object lesson, he was hung, still alive, in front of the village church for several days.
Many lay people were also tortured for failing to denounce the “crimes” of the clergy (whole parishes of Albanian Catholics asked to be arrested in place of their priests and met to say the rosary in the priest’s absence). Maria Shalaku, from Kosovo, was pronounced too depraved for quick execution: she was condemned to “be slowly burned alive to ashes.”
In the prisons camps, the slow torture took many forms. Jan Gardin, a Jesuit survivor, recorded in his journal:
“Most of them were beaten on their bare feet with wooden clubs; the fleshy part of the legs and buttocks were cut open, rock salt inserted beneath the skin, and then sewn up again; their feet, placed in boiling water until the flesh fell off, were then rubbed with salt; their Achilles’ tendons were pierced with hot wires. Some were hung by their arms for three days without food; put in ice and icy water until nearly frozen; had electrical wires places in their ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus; burning pine needles placed under fingernails; forced to eat a kilo of salt and having water withheld for 24 hours; boiled eggs put in their armpits; teeth pulled without anaesthetic; tied behind vans and dragged; left in solitary confinement without food or water until almost dead; forced to drink their own urine and eat their own excrement; put in pits of excrement up to their necks; put on a bed of nails and covered with heavy material; put in nail-studded cages which were then rotated rapidly.”
But the people remained faithful. When religious services were permitted again in 1990, they immediately drew thousands. The government returned religious properties in 1991, the same year that Mother Teresa made a brief visit and opened a convent. In 1983, it compared John Paul II to Mussolini; in 1993, it honored him for defending the Albanian people for 15 years. The Albanian Church triumphed — at a high price. Of 156 priests before the persecution began, 65 were martyred, 64 died during or after imprisonment. Tens of thousands of common people perished for religious reasons. No people passed through a worse trial in the 20th century.
Pope John Paul II has said: “History has never seen before what happened in Albania. Dear Albanians, your drama must interest the whole European continent: Europe must not forget.”
Royal, Robert. “Albania: The First Atheist State.” Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).
Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History, The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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