Atheist-Communist Albania Was Like 'Living in a Concentration Camp'

Religious Sister Recalls Life Under Communist Dictatorship and Looks Forward to Pope Francis’ Visit

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Yes indeed, I am Sister Mira, daughter of the Albanian people; I was born and grew up during the Communist dictatorship. I will write a few lines of history, because outside of history nothing is understandable. For so many countries of the world Communist dictatorship is unknown, but we were the world emblem for having succeeded to be ‘unique,” because we were the only nation in the world and in the Constitution itself declared an ATHEIST country. In our country, the lord god was the dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-1985). But, who was this man? Where did he come from? Here then is a short historical account in order to understand better today’s history.

Albania was always an country invaded by various conquerors also because of its geographic position and maritime communications with Italy. Hence, in addition to the Greeks, there were the Romans from 167 BC to 395 AD, Venice with the 4thCrusade, the Serbs and then at the beginning of 1400 the Ottomans. All these invasions didn’t allow it to have a national conscience. The Turkish domination was the darkest period of the country’s history. Hence, there were massive exoduses of intelligence that could not endure the domination. Many accepted the imposed conversion, others converted to have economic and social privileges and this continued until 1912 with [the coming] of independence.

Political instability continued after the Turks, with Zog’s regime. In 1939 Mussolini placed Albania under his protectorate and in 1941, with the Second World War, the anti-Fascist partisans and the Socialist intellectuals founded the Communist Party in 1944. As Monsignor Prenushi (victim of the dictatorship) said: “it was the release of a hailstorm.” The Communist dictatorship meant the strongest eremitic closing of Albania: 50 years of isolation from the whole world, with the great dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-1985).

As the dominant force for 40 years, after the Second World War, he forced the transformation of the country from the semi-feudal relic of the Ottoman Empire to a very controlled industrialized economy. With him religious, cultural and political liberty was limited and, from the beginning, he was committed to a methodical persecution of the clergy and intellectuals. Subsequently, he made a link with China: in the “Chinese” phase (1961-1978) Albania allowed itself to be taken in by them in affirming a common Marxist-Leninist ideology and fraternity.

Detachment from China began already in 1975 because of its rapprochement with the West; it led Albania to total isolation from the world. The dictator rejected all the major world powers and made nationalism the essential component of the regime, declaring that he wished to make of Albania, to “make” the people “happy,” a model Socialist Republic, the most “progressive” order of the world that a free man could bring about, in the only atheist State, freed from the chains of oppression and of religion, which is the opium of the people. Every cultural and intellectual endeavour was put at the service of Socialism and of the State, and if someone had a different idea, [the latter] had to be subjected to the dictator, otherwise one was judged an enemy of the Party and of the people and, consequently, condemned to prison.

The Catholic Church was particularly persecuted, which was doing her utmost to reawaken consciences and for reinsertion in a wider European cultural context.  “To strike the Catholic Church meant, therefore, to annul tradition also, to make room for the “new ideology,” because the Catholic was culturally and intellectually very elevated. “Communist Albania had become, for Christians and also for all the inhabitants, a great concentration camp, where personal life was lived under iron rules and an inflexible control. In the secret of family life some religious tradition continued, but always in danger because the regime exerted strong control. Children, especially in schools, were invited to denounce the anti-Socialist and religious activities of their relatives.”

Hoxha died in 1985 but the nightmare did not end immediately for Albania. His successor, Ramiz Alia, already at his side from the beginning of the 80s, when Hoxha was first sick, together with Hoxha’s wife, Nexhmije, continued to manage Albanian politics, giving “some timid signs of opening and renewal.” In 1991, Alia authorized the pluralism of parties. It was the beginning of popular manifestations against the dictator, when demonstrators knocked down Hoxha’s statue. Alia thought of undertaking some reforms: land to peasants, abolition of the death penalty, renunciation of State atheism, freedom of the press, the possibility to go abroad …The first free elections took place finally on March 31, 1991.

Look, the year 1991 was a story of resurrection also for me. Living for 17 years in a social context where life had no meaning, it was terrible for all: for grandparents who had grown up with religious formation, for parents who couldn’t even tell there children that Another existed outside the dictator (because if they did so they risked prison). The spies were also among the parents because in this way they succeeded in having privileges and an extra piece of bread to feed their children; hence, parents didn’t dare to say anything.

It was especially difficult for those of middle age who today are 50-60 years old, who, at the most beautiful time of life, had to say in a loud voice that God didn’t exist, but it was also difficult for us, adolescents. In fact, the temptation to suicide was around us, but it was also in me: why do I live? Am I the fruit of an accident so it’s better to end it and not prolong the history of suffering and especially of no meaning. The Lord willed that I not come to this point. The Lord passed in our midst through so many missionaries, witnesses who with courage came to speak to us of God, especially those priests who stayed alive in the prisons of the dictatorship, but then also the missionaries who came from outside of Albania.

It was the moment of the reawakening of faith of so many grandparents and adults who had kept within the sense of God, but for us adolescents, especially for me, [it was something] unknown. Some friends of mine at school made the sign of the cross on the ground as a magic sign to ask to win in a game or to get good grades at school. That sign stayed in my memory, but without knowing the meaning. Who was hiding in that sign? The first missionaries who came to those who desired it gave us the Bible already in Albanian (because at Kosovo, there was already an organized Church, and with translated editions). And how did I become Christian? I was a Christian by tradition. A mad rite that all of us at school fled to – perhaps because what they were proposing to us was a novelty – the whole school went to the church, which during the dictatorship had been used to store grain (and other churches destroyed, others [became] sports palaces …) we went to be baptized. But I assure you I knew nothing about Baptism, but the priests who were in prison during the dictatorship said: “We baptize in haste because if the Party changes its mind, it’s better that we save souls.” A mass Baptism without parents , godparents, without catechesis, without knowledge, but a common rite. And still today some are uncertain if they were baptized or only blessed with holy water!

Baptism is a gift of God and, therefore, it does not depend on me, on my knowledge, but I only know that in me there was not only the discovery of a novelty, a curiosity, or I don’t know what, but I know it was the desire of life and of a meaningful life … And this was being offered to me by a Person unknown to me, Jesus Christ, and I found Him only in this message of love: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

So, in face of this truth one cannot remain indifferent. It’s not possible, I said, tha
t a God acts in this way, but I don’t know how to thank this God. What can I do, how can I return this message of love?  And I began to read the whole Bible, not only out of curiosity but because it gave me breath, life. Everything took on meaning; life now was no longer boring, but began to have meaning which continues in eternity. What breath! So the encounter with the Word, not only as a novel, but [knowing that] behind that Word was a Person, who warmed my heart (Luke 24), made me respond to this Love with a strong, counter-current decision to follow Him. Enormous effort, which lasted four years, to leave my parents and make the choice of entering a convent, because there was always the fear of what would happen if the dictatorship returned, what would be my end? Then we believe that it is better to get married …but also because my family was going to America, for the possibility of a better life, where they are still today, in Florida.

For me, it wasn’t America, or Italy, or any “blue prince” who substituted the Person of Christ. He had taken me and even in face of little “princes” I did not lose Him from view. Now He was the background of everything. So, in 1996 I entered the convent of the Little Sisters of the Holy Family who had come to my parish. I wasn’t calm the first months because a few months later, on March 13, 1997, there was an internal revolt in the country and the missionaries had to return to their countries.  So now we are in God’s hands, and He will lead to fulfilment the story of each and of all together.

Therefore, Pope Francis’s visit, after that of John Paul II in 1993 , together with Mother Teresa – is a great gift after the dictatorship. Francis also makes us feel privileged for two reasons, as he said, that he comes “to confirm the Church of Albania in the faith and to give witness of his encouragement and love to a country that has suffered for long in consequence of ideologies of the past” (Angelus 15.06.’14).

It’s an honor for us in face also of the whole of Europe first because being a country with a great percentage of Muslims (in statistics of some years ago 70% were Muslims, 20% Orthodox and 10% Catholics), he comes to tell us that he recognizes us as People of God on the way, regardless of the religion; I know your dignity, and as leader of the Catholic Church it is important for every person, regardless of his religion, to know that each one in particular is a gift of God (of that God that we were taught didn’t exist) and that we are called to respect and to protect this treasure. The first ,which I put as second, is to encourage all Christians, the minority, to be witnesses of faith, acknowledging that Jesus Christ alone, “the new man” (GS 22), makes us become more men (GS 41), and gives us the courage to be true witnesses of values: of life, of solidarity, of peace and of forgiveness in the country for a positive, serene and harmonious inter-religious coexistence. Therefore, for Albania, September 21, 2014 is Easter, because the Lord PASSES to visit His people and appreciate them, He passes to say to us that He “is the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:26). We want to live and we want to live as risen ones.

Francis’ trip will certainly be accompanied by all persons of good will, by all the martyrs of the dictatorship and especially by John Paul II and Mother Teresa, the great Albanian woman, but called by the dictator “the witch of the Balkans,” therefore, never known during the dictatorship. It might seem strange, but the media was controlled by the dictatorship and it was impossible to know what was happening outside of Albania. In our school books we knew only that God didn’t exist, that the Church was a fraud for the poor … and we never knew the great personalities, we only knew what the dictator wanted to tell us.

After 20 years of democracy I must say that Albania is in need, first of all, of political stability. All of us Albanians must have the certainty that God loves us and that He visits His people with Pope Francis’ presence. All of us, regardless of our religion, are invited to live as persons who seek, desire, grow and live in liberty, in peace, in mutual respect and forgiveness. Catholics, who are the minority, are encouraged at this historic moment to be true witnesses and not allow themselves to be swept away by easy propositions, but to live fully our vocation of response to Love.

Pope Francis’ presence will certainly be for every Albanian a word of closeness, of hope for the future where human values exist – which were hidden. Now is the moment for them to come out with courage and respect, regardless of the diversity of types or religions.

We entrust [the Pope’s] trip to the Lord and ask Him to open the hearts of Albanians to receive his message.

Sister Mira Koleci is a religious with the Little Sisters of the Holy Family in Albania

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Mira Koleci

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