For almost fifty years Albania’s communist regime waged a savage war on religion, which it called “the opium of the people”.
But the communists couldn’t do away completely with believers, who today make up a majority of the country’s population.
Why, then, did the communist war on religion in Albania not succeed?
The answer lies in the powerful example of Albanians of all creeds who were persecuted for their faith but refused to give in.
Driving the news
The website Balkan Insight dedicated a report this week to religious martyrs of Albania’s communist dictatorship.
People like Father (now Cardinal) Ernest Simoni Troshani – now 90 years of age – who recalled that “once the war ended, the communists came along with their destruction… Our professors [of religion] were shot… imprisoned… they treated us like animals”.
Simoni was arrested in 1963 after saying a Mass for assassinated US president John F. Kennedy.
Remembering his detention, Simoni said: “They tied my hands behind my back in a brutal way as if I were a dangerous criminal and told me that ‘you are being arrested in the name of the people'”.
The cardinal said his captors added: “‘You will be hanged because you told people and youngsters that if necessary we must give our life to Jesus Christ'”.
“They treated me savagely, in front of my old parents, whose eyes were filled with tears”, the cardinal recalled.
Later, Simoni said he was also tortured.
“They tried every method, tightened the handcuffs so that my blood flow was restricted… I do not know how I am alive today, but when the Lord sends a trial, he also gives the power to deal with it”.
Simoni would go on to spend 28 years in prison.
Though he was forced to do hard labour – first in a mine, and then in a sewage canal – he continued to say Mass and to take confessions.
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The big picture
Simoni was hardly the only Catholic martyr of Albanian communism.
Father Shtjefen Kurti, the Kosovan-born one-time confessor to Mother Teresa and to Queen Geraldine of Albania, spent 17 years in prison for being an alleged Western agent.
After being released in 1964, at the age of 66, Kurti continued to baptise children in secret, even though administering the sacraments was against the law.
Kurti was also being tracked by agents of the Sigurimi, the Albanian secret police.
The priest was finally killed by firing squad in 1971, after a show trial in a former church on charges of espionage, sabotage and covert religious activity.
But not before he told the judge:
“You are not condemning me to death, because death and life is in God’s hands, but you are condemning me to a shortened life”.
For the record
The Hoxha regime didn’t just target Catholics – it also persecuted Muslims.
Muslim cleric Hafiz Ali Kraja spent 19 years in prison for giving a speech in 1944 warning of the negative consequences of communism for Albania.
Another imam, Hafiz Sabri Koci, suffered 20 years’ imprisonment.
All the while, both believers continued to observe the fasting month of Ramadan, along with other Islamic cultural traditions.
Why it matters
Although sociologists warn that Albania’s war on religion has left a mark on contemporary society, the majority of its population today – more than 75%, according to a 2011 census – say they still have faith.
Almost 57% of citizens say they are Muslim. 10% are Catholic, 6.75% are Orthodox and just over 2% belong to the Bektashi, an order of Sufi dervish.
Just 2.5% of the population identify as atheist.
Proof that even the most militant of worldly ideologies are no match for the saints, whether Christian, Muslim or those of another religion.