Ministering in a Nation Without God

Interview With Volunteer Doctor in Albania

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TIRANA, Albania, JULY 12, 2010 ( Mosques and churches were forcibly closed in Albania in 1967; religious practice wasn’t allowed again for almost a quarter of a century. In fact, Albania is known as the world’s first atheist state.

Today in post-Communist Albania, it’s hard to estimate how many Catholics are among the nation’s 3.6 million people — perhaps around 10%, with another 20% being Orthodox.

To this scenario journeys Dr. Anna Maria Doro, a member of the Catholic lay Community of Sant’Egidio. She’s been helping in Albania for 10 years.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Doro gives an inside look at Albania and how it’s changed and continues changing.

Q: What struck you the most when you first went to Albania? What touched you personally?

Doro: What touched me was the difference between the two countries [Italy and Albania]. It is very near Italy and only 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Port of Brindisi to the port in Vlore in Albania.

Albania had not changed — it was something like a hundred years ago: very few cars on the streets, bad streets and shortages of electricity. The life of the people is linked to a very archaic agricultural system and many shepherds. But what touched me was the warmth of the people. The Albanians are very welcoming toward foreigners. Hospitality is highly valued and even if they are in a difficult situation, they share what they have with their guests.

Q: If I read correctly, there was an electric fence that went around the country?

Doro: There was a kind of a fence, for example along the border with Yugoslavia surrounding the lake. There are no trees on the border to this day. The trees were all cut in order to prevent the people from leaving the country. To leave the country was forbidden and the people who were caught were executed and their family prosecuted. I met people who could not finish their studies because a distant cousin tried to escape.

Even movement within the country was forbidden so people in the mountains, who were economically deprived, were forbidden from migrating to the urban areas because it was a privilege to live in the city, which was accorded to the loyal members of the regime. There was a total cultural isolation and the people were forbidden from listening to foreign news and music and as a consequence, the people were unaware of events in the outside world during that period and they were fed with a distorted view of the outside world.

Q: The attack on the Church was terrible; persecution was hard. What examples can you give us of how this attack on the Church occurred?

Doro: They started with the killing of about 60 priests and many nuns and arresting all of the priests. There was a suppression of religious orders and the closure of Catholic schools. I met a Stigmatine sister in Shkoder. Their convent was closed. There were about 90 of them. They went back to their homes and continued to be nuns and people brought children to them to be baptized in secret. Some of these sisters were novices and they waited and could only wear their religious habits again in 1991 when they were in their 70s.

Q: You are a medical doctor. You’ve been working in Albania since 1995 and you are going as a volunteer that is, you go on your holidays to Albania, you give 15 days and in fact you are going to be leaving very soon? What medical challenges do you see? You are working with children. What challenges do you see in the medical structure and infrastructure in Albania?

Doro: The Sant’Egidio Community helps particularly in the health and educational sectors. The health sector is ill-equipped like most of the public sectors in Albania. So we assist with donations for medicine and health equipment for hospitals. And particularly in the north, which is the poorest part of the country, we are supporting 14 pediatric clinics especially to help in the fight against childhood malnutrition. Since 1991 the economic situation in Albania has improved of course, but there are still plenty of needs in the health sector and people are still suffering. The infrastructure is lacking and there are still shortages in electricity and this is very difficult for the people.

Q: There somehow seems to be silence about the country from the international community. Do you feel this and why?

Doro: For 40 years it was impossible to know anything about Albania. Now, the situation surely is different. From a general point of view, I would say, that Albanians are very interested about other countries and languages but there is no reciprocity among the Western Europeans and the U.S.. The Italians, for example are misinformed about Albania. Their perception is based on the first Albanians they encountered in 1991: poor refugees. Now the situation is different. The Albanian emigrates overseas should assist in changing the perception by the international community and through tourism. There are many wonderful sites in Albania.

Q: How does the Church work in this reconstruction effort?

Doro: The Church has done very important work in Albania. It aided in the reconstruction of the society in terms of human development and in the communication of the Gospel. This started initially in the beginning especially with the aid of the universal Church. Many missionaries — priest and nuns — came from Italy, Kosovo, Croatia, India, the Philippines and Germany. They help to rebuild the churches, schools and clinics. In the beginning the Church was forced to become a proxy administrator because the state was non-existent or ineffective. I think that the Church is a very important point of reference not just for Catholics but for everyone including those without a clear religious identity because the Church is a witness of Christian love which is free of charge — compassion and love, which is uncommon in that society.

Q: Is the Church highly trusted by the people because it lived with the people during their difficult times, perhaps more than the state?

Doro: Yes, it is very trusted and respected not only by the state but by the other religions because the Church helps everyone without distinction and the people recognize this.

Q: How is the relationship between the Muslims and Catholics in Albania? It seems to be quite harmonious?

Doro: Yes it is up to now. Catholics and Muslims co-exist. Catholics would visit the Muslims during their feasts and vice versa. Now there are some signs of fraying in the relationships because of the events internationally that are reflected as well in Albania, but generally the relationship is quite good and there are a lot of intermarriages.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,» a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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