The Albanian Orthodox Church – 29/1/17
Interview of His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania with Genc Mlloja, Albanian Daily News.
It was the beginning of 1991 when His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana. Durres and All Albania was appointed to be Patriarchal Exarch in Albania. In an exclusive interview with Albanian Daily News His Beatitude reveals details of His endeavor to resurrect the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania fully destroyed by the communist regime in this Balkan country7 starting in 1967.
“In general, we gathered in rains of churches, under trees, or in the open air throughout the country and I witnessed despair and expectation,” says Archbishop Anastasios dwelling on the challenging enterprise for the development of the Orthodox Church of Albania, which, as he confesses, turned Him into an International Beggar’.
“I knew clearly that always I begged for something very essential and not for myself,” he says explaining that to realize the necessary projects he had to run in different directions: to explain, to persuade, and to beg. “I reached out to all my friends in Europe, the United States and Australia searching for support from various foundations and individuals. Thanks be to God, help came from directions that I never expected,” Archbishop Anastasios says. He speaks of suspicion, especially due to his Greek origin, tribulations, misunderstandings, accusations and slanders faced many times throughout all these years. “In all trying and difficult situations our refuge and consolation is the certainty that “If God is with us who can be against us?”, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios admits with determination in the following interview:
Your Beatitude, how did it happen that You were chosen to be Primate of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania, and what was your reaction at the beginning when religion was being reborn in Albania after the fall of the communist regime?
Surprise was my first reaction. It was the beginning of 1991 when I received a call in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, that has the responsibility to care for and support the Orthodox Churches in difficulties, asked me to be Patriarchal Exarch in Albania. At this time, I was full Professor of the History of Religion in the National University of Athens, Acting Archbishop in East Africa for the organization of the Orthodox Mission, and Moderator (Chairman) of the “Commission and Conference on World Mission and Evangelism” of the World Council of Churches (my post-graduate studies in Germany and subsequent writings focused on World Religions and Christian Witness).
I arrived in Tirana in July of 1991. After my first contact with the political leadership I began to visit the major towns and numerous villages where traditionally there were Orthodox communities. In general, we gathered in ruins of churches, under trees, or in the open air throughout the country and I witnessed despair and expectation. My first message was: “We dare to hope. The God of Love will not abandon us!” The first words that I learned in Albanian – I was already 62 years old – was the Paschal greeting: “Krishti u Ngjall (Christ is Risen)!” The place of the Archbishop in a Church, especially in the unique case of a Church that had been fully destroyed as in the case of Albania, was not a throne of comfort, power and glory, but a place of service with the spirit of the Cross. Jesus Christ described very clearly his duty: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Which were the first steps to re-erect the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania at that time and where did you get the strength to carry out your mission? Who/which were your supporters morally and financially?
We started to celebrate, to preach, and circulate the Bible and Christian literature in the Albanian language. We organized a Committee, with the participation of an elderly priest and a lay person from each of the main districts in order to represent the Orthodox Church in public relations. We created a seminary for the preparation of local clergy. Since we did not have the necessary buildings and facilities, we rented a hotel in Durrës and we began there with many difficulties. We accepted people that had at minimum finished High School. By the grace of God, during my service here, I have educated, ordained and supported more than 160 Albanian citizens to priesthood.
When I started, I did not have any promises for either a financial budget or a team of people to help me. I accepted this challenging adventure with spontaneous faith in God and free obedience to the Church. The only thing that was sure for me financially was my pension from the University of Athens. To realize the necessary projects, I had to run in different directions: to explain, to persuade, and to beg. I reached out to all my friends in Europe, the United States and Australia searching for support from various foundations and individuals. Thanks be to God, help came from directions that I never expected. For the sake of the development of the Orthodox Church of Albania, I became an ‘International Beggar,’ throughout this, I knew clearly that always I begged for something very essential and not for myself.
As far as the question, ‘from where do you get the strength to carry out your mission,’ I have to remind you that the whole of my life is based in the certainty that the Supreme Reality in the universe is the God of Love. I always recall this wonderful verse from Saint John the Evangelist, “God is Love and who abides in love abides in God and God in Him,” I am persuaded that this definition about the Supreme Reality is the most significant and is always relevant and a source of inspiration. Of course I know that there are many people that do not believe in God let alone a God of Love, and perhaps these people are suspicious when they hear us speak about our beliefs. I respect their freedom to have their ideas, but I do not stop to be inspired by my Christian faith, by the certainty of the presence of Christ in every step of our efforts. I believe with all my heart that the most important thing that we can offer and experience in life is love. That the most essential effort of the Church is to be a workshop of love radiating the love of God.
Many times throughout all these years we have faced suspicion (especially due to my Greek origin), tribulations, misunderstandings, accusations and slanders. In all trying and difficult situations our refuge and consolation is the certainty that “If God is with us who can be against us?” and especially the experience of Saint Paul who wrote “I can do all this through Christ who strengthens me.” I understand that this language may be strange for people that have different religious persuasions; I mentioned this only as a sign that there is an area of faith and experience that offers the spiritual power to overcome obstacles and tribulations. Faith and prayer remain the secret strength of everyone who tries to have a relationship with God and to serve. In these endeavors, I was not alone, during these 25 years we had various excellent coworkers, the majority from local people, but also approximately 4-6 clergy and 5-8 lay persons from foreign countries, persons with a spirit of love and sacrifice.
It is an important historical fact that with the creation of the Albanian state in 1912, a new phase began for the Orthodox Church. The coming of political independence brought repeated demands requiring the independence of all religious communities by the centers that were in other countries. How do you consider that period?
It was a natural expectation (since other Balkan nations had received this Autocephality from the Ecumenical Patriarchate). It was also imperative that this Autocephality be realized through the proper Ecclesiastical Tradition and procedure. It was necessary to keep both the global historical identity as a member of Orthodoxy, as well as her local expression in the Albanian State. The solution was finally formulated after mutual agreement from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Albanian authorities with the Canonical offering of Autocephality in April, 1937. As it is written clearly in the first article of her Constitution: “The Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, having as her Founder and Head our Lord and God Jesus Christ, is a divine institution in space as a presence and manifestation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, remaining integrally united with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and all the sister Autocephalous Orthodox Churches and unwaveringly safeguards the sources of faith, namely Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition and the Holy Apostolic and Synodal Canons.”
In the Orthodox Tradition, we have a Synodical system; no “Autocephalous” Church is independent in the sense of a secular institution. There are a lot of continuous internal relations and interdependence. As it was emphasized in the Holy and Great Synod of Orthodoxy, in 2016 in Crete, “The Orthodox Autocephalous Churches do not constitute a federation of Churches, but the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Each local Church as she offers the holy Eucharist is the local presence and manifestation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The unity of the Orthodox Church is primarily based upon the Eucharist and upon the continued Apostolic Succession of her bishops.
In this theological frame the restoration of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, after her complete destruction wrought by the atheistic regime, was necessary to be carried out according to the Orthodox Tradition and ethos. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which had granted Autocephality to the Church of Albania, took the initiative for the restoration of the annihilated Church. Everything has developed in the proper Ecclesiastical manner; this is well known, not only in the Orthodox circles, but generally in the Christian world.
On November 22nd, 1967, Albania was officially proclaimed an atheist state – the only one of Its kind in the world and in history. In this State, all forms of religious expression were constitutionally forbidden. Hundreds of churches were pulled down, and many more repurposed. How did you experience that hard time the Albanian people were passing through? Which were some of the efforts and achievements in your endeavor for the restoration of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania?
Living outside of Albania, I followed with great pain and concern the awful atheistic persecution in Albania. To destroy not only the religious buildings but also the faith in the heart of the people was the most terrible injustice. To uproot from the conscious of the people religious faith was truly a crime against humanity. I kept the certainty that God would make the miracle that religious freedom would be offered once again to Albania.
As far as my effort is concerned, I add to what I mentioned before about the preparation of Albanian citizens for the service of the Church, that in following years we erected the “Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy” in Shen Vlash, Durrës, and two High Schools named after the “Holy Cross,” all with boarding facilities, as well as a school for Byzantine Music. A main priority according to the standards of Orthodoxy was the creation and development of the Holy Synod. Today it consists of: the Archbishop, six Metropolitans and one Bishop. Two other important steps were the ratification of the Statutes of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania and the Agreement with the government of Albania, which became State Law nr. 10057 on January 22nd, 2009 both constitute the basic legal documents of our Church.
Throughout this period, we succeeded in erecting more than 150 new churches, large and small, in addition, another 60 cultural monuments – churches and monasteries – were restored and over 160 additional churches have been repaired. Also, more than 70 buildings have been constructed or renovated to make nurseries, schools, youth centers, workshops and clinics. All together there have been more than 450 building projects. Dozens of books on Theology and Spirituality as well as various periodicals have been published by our private printing press. Fellowships of youth, women and intellectuals were established; as well as a radio station, to further develop the Christian life and witness.
During all these years one crucial issue remained: to secure the financial continuation of all these efforts for the future. This dream was more difficult to realize. By the power of God, in 2016 we succeeded in the completion of a Hydro-power Plant near Librazhd. This project has four key features: it fully meets all environmental standards, it uses only renewable energy sources, it aides in the development of the infrastructure of Albania by contributing to the available electricity, and has a clear social perspective: by its income we will be able to continue our spiritual, philanthropic, educational and social endeavors.
Besides religion did you get involved in other projects to support the ordinary people whose situation was hard at that time?
During periods of great crisis (1992, 1994, 1997, etc.) we tried to alleviate the suffering of the people. We offered extensive humanitarian aid providing thousands of tons of food, clothes and medicines. We have placed a strong emphasis on general education evidenced by the establishment of approximately 30 schools of all levels: nursery, elementary and high schools, Institutes of Technical Education and a University-College (with the name Logos). During these years we offered over 30,000 yearly scholarships and more than 11,000 children and students were aided in their studies.
In the field of health care, our “Annunciation Medical Diagnostic Center” in Tirana, offers health care services with the contribution of renowned doctors and modern medical equipment. More than 2 million visits and millions of analyses have been carried out during the 17 years of its operation. Other medical programs have been organized to serve people in some cities and the countryside. We have also developed and supported a number of social programs including development projects in mountain areas.
A very important effort was undertaken in 1999, when thousands of refugees arrived in Albania from Kosovo. Our Church, in cooperation with other European Churches, aided and housed over 33,000 refugees. These are only a portion of the concrete efforts we have realized, but it is not possible to go into more detail in this interview (additional information is available on our website www.orthodoxalbania.org and through relevant Church publications).
In the various departments, foundations, and institutions created by the Church, over 800 people are employed and have worked through these years; adding the people who have worked for the construction companies used for the various programs of the Church through the last 25 years, that number rises significantly and this gives a glimpse of the social and financial contribution of the Church for the development of the country. In summary, our Church has substantially contributed to the reconstruction and to the social and spiritual development of Albania.
What are the links and cooperation of the Orthodox Church of Albania at an international level?
We participate fully in all the activities of the Orthodox Churches. Our Church’s contribution was very important in the “Synaxes” (special meetings) of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches of the last years and particularly in the Holy and Great Synod of Orthodoxy that took place in Crete in June of 2016. Our Church also became a member of the Conference of European Churches (Geneva), the World Council of Churches (Geneva), and also of the inter-religious World Conference for Religions for Peace (New York). It is known that in all these international organizations we had an active participation (in the Conference of European Churches I have been Vice President, in the World Council of Churches, President and in the inter-religious Religions for Peace honorary President).
Albania is lauded for the religious harmony between the people across the country. How do you consider this, what is your role in this endeavor?
Even before coming to Albania, I was a member of the “Working Theological Group for Dialogue with People of Other Faiths and Ideologies” of the World Council of Churches. Here in Albania we are in a continual “dialogue of life,” with deep respect for every human person irrespective of his or her religious or philosophical ideas or persuasions. From the first year, we worked for cordial relations among the heads of the other religious communities. We took the initiative for the creation of the Interdenominational Bible Society. Also we established the Inter-Religious Council of Albania and we became a member of the World Conference on Religion for Peace. In general, we tried to promote not only tolerance but brotherly collaboration and harmonious coexistence. This was recognized publically by State authorities. Religious harmony in Albania is a concrete fruit of conscious and diligent efforts during all of these years from all religious communities. It must continue to be a spiritual asset of the Albanian society.