Albanians Rediscover God, If Not Old-Time Religion

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.

Eva Ndoja, a 20-year-old factory worker among the more than 2,000 people who regularly attend the Catholic cathedral's 10 a.m. Sunday Mass, said she cherishes her right to go to church because her parents couldn't. "I like being part of this big congregation," she said, as hundreds of people who had stood in the aisles filed out of the building that for so long had been used for basketball games. "Going to church makes me feel good."

There are no reliable statistics on religion in this country, which still fiercely separates religion from politics. It is generally thought that the majority of Albanians are Muslim, though many do not practice their faith. There are also significant numbers of Albanian Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Bektashis, a distinctive Sufi Muslim sect that maintains its world headquarters here, as well as Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and others.

Many Albanians who grew up learning in school that God didn't exist still have no desire to practice religion. "There are still atheists, but the number of believers is growing every day," said Rasim Hasanaj, chairman of Albania's State Committee on Cults, as the government office in charge of religious affairs is called.

Shkoder, religious leaders said, has roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, many mixed marriages and people who join in both Easter and Eid celebrations. Many Albanians interviewed here said they are grateful for the money and manpower from foreign religious groups. Not only has the largess built new churches and mosques, it has funded job training, food, roads, irrigation, schools and other projects.

But there is concern about funding coming from Muslim extremist groups. Many people also say they worry that foreign influence is introducing conservative or radical thinking in other religions as well, at odds with Albania's history as a moderate, multi-faith society.

For example, several large crosses erected in the hills outside Shkoder have created tensions, and at least one has been cut down. Many Muslims said they thought Christians from abroad might have put up the crosses, because the custom here -- long before the communists intervened -- was to be more discreet with religious symbols so they would not offend people of other faiths.

"I think it is a good idea to keep religious symbols inside," said Ndricim Sulejmani, the mufti of Shkoder. Perhaps, the Muslim leader said, the tradition has contributed to the good relations in Albania between people of different faiths.

He said thousands of Muslims now attend Friday prayers in 54 mosques in the area, twice as many as existed before the attempt to wipe out faith. "Trying to kill religion was an injustice, and injustices are destined to fail," he said.

Sulejmani said he went to Syria for his religious training because for so many years none was available here. But new Christian and Islamic schools have opened where growing numbers of people study the Bible and the Koran.

Leaders of the main religious faiths are united in demanding that the government return land seized from them during the communist era. For one thing, they said, it would add to their wealth and make them less dependent on foreign funds. But government efforts to return property have been complicated, because many people have built homes on land long ago taken from religious groups.

Pllumi, the Catholic priest, said he looks forward to a day when "religious institutions in Albania are led by Albanians." He noted the outcry last year when a Muslim leader who had spent many years studying in the Middle East criticized a decision to put up a statue of Mother Teresa in Shkoder. The nun, a Nobel Peace laureate, was an ethnic Albanian whose parents had connections to the city. "An Albanian Muslim would never think to criticize a statue of Mother Teresa," Pllumi said.

The life of Pllumi, a frail man who spoke in his tiny room in the Franciscan monastery where priests were once jailed, embodies the story of this country's relationship with faith. First arrested for being a Catholic priest in the 1940s, when communism initially took hold here, he said, he was released three years later. Then in 1967, the year Hoxha declared Albania officially atheist, Pllumi was detained again and for 22 years was moved among various work camps.

At a copper mine where he was forced to work, he said, he saw a leading Muslim cleric who had also been jailed. Taking away people's freedom of religion, he said, is a sure way "to make religion strong."

Pllumi reached beneath his black sweater and showed how he used to secretly make a tiny sign of the cross on his chest. If caught making any gesture of faith -- and he was -- there was more punishment. Sometimes that meant being tossed into isolation, stripped naked and left on a cold, wet, concrete floor.

He hates to be cold now. Even though the temperature rises to nearly 60 degrees on these spring days, he said he would wait for warmer weather before going outside. Using a giant magnifying glass, he spends his days reading, often about the world's religious conflicts. He prays that harmony lasts in Albania, he said. A smile came to his worn face when he recalled how Muslims offered to be his bodyguards when he was finally released from prison and began celebrating outdoor Masses in Shkoder.

Sitting on his bed, covered with a spread decorated with colorful little sailboats, Pllumi said his home town's religious renaissance proves that faith cannot be wiped out by decree, bulldozers or bullets.

"Religion keeps people alive," he said.