Letter from Albania:
In the backstreets of Saranda the street children selling cheap trinkets share only two words in English: “One euro.” But when they are asked their names in Greek, Pos se léne? (What’s your name?"), even they can answer fluently: “Me léne Christos, Me léne Florin.” Greek is commonly spoken in this corner of Albania but 10 years ago, Saranda and the surrounding villages in southern Albania were in danger of being deserted as the ethnic Greeks of Northern Epirus and their ethnic Albanian neighbours tried to cross the border in droves, seeking greater freedom and economic opportunities.
Today, those who fled or migrated are trickling back to Albania. Loretta, a schoolteacher, has seen them go and return. Although she quotes the official estimates that 20 per cent of the people of Saranda are Greek speakers, the response of the street children confirms local estimates that the figures are higher.
The survival of Albania’s ethnic Greek minority, with their language, culture and Orthodox Christianity, is evidence that Albania may be about to reverse its economic fortunes. Remittances home and returning migrants have brought a building boom to Saranda and the neighbouring villages, with new apartment blocks and hotels along the seashore. Mobile phone users are offered a choice of five operators – two Albanian and three Greek – and day trippers from Corfu are one of the primary sources of cash and foreign currency.
The survival of Albania’s ethnic Greeks is testimony to the resilience and fortitude of this minority throughout the Cold War, when Albania cut all ties with the outside world, becoming Europe's most isolated state and, from 1967, the world's only true atheist state.
Yet, throughout those decades, religion survived in the hearts of the people. Today, new churches, cathedrals and mosques are springing up again. The number of Albanians who are Orthodox Christians is now put at 30 per cent, including ethnic Greeks and ethnic Albanians.
The Albanian people claim descent from the original Illyrians, who populated this part of the Balkans in pre-classical times. One of the most important archaeological sites east of the Adriatic is Butrint, south of Saranda. The largely unexcavated site contains Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian remains, with many important early Christian remains, including an early basilica and one of the most complete early baptisteries built between Venice and Constantinople.
Albanians believe Christianity was brought here by the Apostle Paul, who said he had proclaimed the Gospel throughout Illyricum (Romans 15: 19), and the Apostle Andrew. After the great schism that divided Christianity in the 11th century, southern Albania remained within the ambit of Byzantine Orthodoxy for centuries, and Albania's struggle for independence at the beginning of the last century was identified with the Orthodox Church, which was also seeking independence.
Efforts to organise an independent Orthodox Church of Albania began in 1908 with Fan Noli, a priest who later became a bishop and prime minister. The Church of Albania, which received independent status from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1937, survived efforts by the Italians during the second World War to force a merger with Byzantine-rite Catholics in Calabria and Sicily. Under Enver Hoxha’s regime, complete control was imposed and religious persecution began. Archbishop Christophoros died under house arrest, clergy and lay Christians were exiled, jailed, tortured and murdered, and when Albania was officially proclaimed an atheist state in 1967, hundreds of churches were torn down, many more turned into workshops, factories, warehouses, stables, cinemas or clubs, and monasteries razed or turned into army barracks.
Today, however, the Church is claiming phenomenal growth. Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of Tirana, a former theology professor at the University of Athens, arrived in 1991 to complete desolation: 1,608 churches and monasteries were destroyed and the number of Orthodox clergy had fallen from 440 in the 1940s to 22. He called together the remaining clergy, re-established a general synod, appointed new bishops and says now that the Orthodox Church of Albania is living in “a resurrection atmosphere”.
Hundreds of churches and monasteries have been built, restored or repaired, the Orthodox Theological Academy of the Resurrection has opened at the Monastery of Aghios Blasios near Durres, and there are new children's homes, diocesan and youth centres, guest houses, schools, clinics, a printing press, and icon studios. The church carries out extensive social work through Diakonia Agapes (Service of Love), distributing food, clothing and medicine.
Greek-speaking villages abandoned in the 1990s are being repopulated slowly, and the Greeks who know this corner of Albania as “Northern Epirus” are no longer seeking union with neighbouring Greece.
This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 9 June 2006