By Paul Alkazraji in Albania
Special to ASSIST News Service
TIRANA, ALBANIA (ANS) -- Along the Boulevard of National Martyrs in Albania's capital Tirana photos of the priests and nuns who fell victim to the country's violent Communist persecutions were draped in remembrance before Pope Francis and the tens of thousands gathered on recently for a Sunday Mass and his homily.
The Pope greetings crowds in Tirana
In addition to the key themes of encouraging Albania's young to build their lives in Christ, and fostering peaceful co-existence between the different religious communities, he drew attention to how the country had "suffered so much because of a terrible atheist regime."
"Albania sadly witnessed the violence and tragedy that can be caused by a forced exclusion of God from personal and communal life," he said. "When, in the name of an ideology, there is an attempt to remove God from a society, it ends up adoring idols, and very soon people lose their way, their dignity trampled and rights violated."
After their rise to power near the end of WWII, the Communists decreed that the activities of all religious communities be supervised by the state. It was after Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in 1966 spawned a similar movement in Albania, however, that the church faced its darkest hour.
Student agitators roamed the countryside forcing people to renounce their faith. The remnants of the fledgling Protestant church was d riven further underground. Catholic and Orthodox priests were interned and over a hundred and twenty died through the harsh conditions, torture, or execution. Outside a cemetery in the northern city of Shkoder many were shot by firing squad. Around 2000 churches and mosques were destroyed or converted into warehouses or gymnasiums. To achieve 'the world's first atheist state' faith communities were obliterated.
Communist monument in Southern Albania
Of those that survived to tell their stories the Franciscan Zef Pllumi emerged as an articulate voice through his book, 'Live to Tell', an account of his cruel treatment in internment camps. Often called the Albanian 'Gulag Archipelago' due to its similarities to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's work, some find it difficult to even endure reading its narrative of suffering.
On that morning of Pope Francis' visit, as I drove with the leaders of a new village church-plant close to the site of one of the places Zef Pllumi was imprisoned, at the Orman-Pojanit camp near Maliq, one told me a further story. It was of a priest who had been beaten about the head and buried alive there.
A second-century Church Father wrote those well-known words 'the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.' Close to the periphery of that camp site, there are now two flourishing churches filled with happy, worshipping communities every Sunday, with a third also growing. At one, in the village of Vloçisht, twenty new believers were baptized this su mmer. May it delight that priest in heaven to know it.
Fertile ground on the plain of Maliq near
One of the new believers, a man in his seventies who lived through those times, waded out into the lake for his baptism with abandon in his long-johns, and speaks of how he could not imagine that his life would change so much at this stage. "I sleep much better. My heart is filled with the love of God, and praying all the time gives me new strength," he says.
From Mother Teresa Square down the Boulevard of National Martyrs Pope Francis spoke the final words of his homily. "To the Church which is alive in this land of Albania, I say "thank you" for the example of fidelity to the Gospel! So many of your sons and daughters have suffered for Christ, even to the point of sacrificing their lives. May their witness sustain your steps today and tomorrow as you journey along the way of love, of freedom, of justice and of peace."