Thirty-eight Albanians killed by an atheistic Soviet-era regime will be beatified.


A group of 38 Albanian Catholics, all killed between 1945 and 1974 by their country’s Communist regime, are now one step closer to sainthood. Pope Francis last month approved their beatification, a recognition that they can intercede on behalf of people who pray to them. This also marks the first time that the Holy See has officially acknowledged them as martyrs.

Though these 38 Catholics suffered for their beliefs, they were steadfast in both their faith and their commitment to the advancement of freedom in Albania. This makes the current government’s efforts to exclude Catholics from contemporary political and social life all the more unacceptable.Religious communities, particularly the Catholic Church, have frequently been persecuted by regimes trying to consolidate power. But Albania’s ruthless Communist-era dictator, Enver Hoxha, went further than most, culminating with the 1967 proclamation of the country as the world’s first constitutionally atheist state.

It is no coincidence that most of the newly declared martyrs were priests. Hoxha reserved a special ire for the country’s Catholic clergy—the spiritual, intellectual and political leaders of a religious minority making up little more than a 10th of the population. His hatred stemmed partly from the crucial role the clergy had played in Albania’s cultural and political rebirth.

Most Albanian priests had been educated in foreign universities, and they represented a vital part of the country’s intellectual elite. Under the motto “Religion and Fatherland,” the clergy promoted a traditional reformist patriotism that sought to protect local customs while simultaneously integrating Albania into Europe. They argued for a free and equal state for all of Albania’s citizens, regardless of social or religious background. As such, they embodied a serious threat to Communist rule.

The oppression suffered by the Catholic Church was all-encompassing, reaching its most pronounced peaks during the early years of the regime (1945-48) and the “Albanian Cultural Revolution” (1967-68), at which point religious institutions and activities were outlawed.

The damage inflicted in the 1960s is nearly indescribable. All of the church’s material assets were confiscated or totally destroyed, the buildings either razed or converted to other uses. That includes a number of churches built by the Franciscan and Dominican orders when they first came to Albania in the 12th century, a historically and culturally significant source of pride for locals.

Missionary activity was paralyzed and priests were isolated and killed. The church’s official statistics say that 228 clerics were interrogated, deported to internment camps or imprisoned. An estimated 139 were executed or died in prison. In total, Catholic leaders spent about 1,250 years in prison or concentration camps.

In the earliest years of the dictatorship, the church’s educational structure was destroyed. Then its contributions to Albanian culture—from before the Ottoman occupation up until the modern era—were persistently denied. The regime put particular effort into erasing the church’s role in Albanian literature and the foundation of the first Albanian-language schools.

At the same time, the state removed from history books any mention of contributions made by Catholic priests to Albanian statecraft. This is particularly exasperating given that a Catholic bishop led the Albanian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which led to the recognition of Albania as a state.

The political heirs to the Communist leadership, now the ruling Socialist Party of Albania, have yet to officially ask for forgiveness for the persecution of the Catholic Church and its clergy.

Instead, Catholics have been quietly excluded from administrative and diplomatic positions under Socialist Party administrations. When the party puts Catholics on its list of candidates for Parliament, it chooses fringe Catholics, some with criminal backgrounds, to discredit the Catholic community and leave it without real representatives. And for three years, without explanation, the Albanian government has failed to send an ambassador to the Holy See—a task even Iraq has managed to perform.

The Vatican’s acknowledgment of the martyrdom of these 38 Albanian Catholics should be seen as an official confirmation of a dark chapter in Albania’s history. At the same time, this recognition is also a sign of support for the proper and authentic reintegration of Albania’s Catholic population in the political, social and administrative life of the country—an integration that has been halted whenever the dictatorship’s political heirs have been in power.

Pope Francis and Martyrs to Communism
Thirty-eight Albanians killed by an atheistic Soviet-era regime will be beatified.
By ROMEO GURAKUQI / Mr. Gurakuqi is a history professor at the European University of Tirana in Albania.
May 19, 2016


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