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Report: Albanians rediscover God

April 4, 2007

From The Washington Post

In a country that once officially outlawed God, religion is back — but in a different way than before the long experiment in godlessness. Many Albanians have resumed spiritual practices with a faith strengthened by the years of suppression. At the same time, new practices and beliefs are being planted by a wave of foreign missionaries and money, making this tiny Adriatic country a remarkable example of the globalization of religion.

Albanians “are happy to have religion back,” said the Rev. Zef Pllumi, 83, a Catholic priest who spent 25 years in prison for his beliefs.

(…)

Albania became the first officially atheist country in the world in 1967. Its dictatorial ruler, Enver Hoxha, ordered all churches and mosques demolished or converted into sports arenas, warehouses or other secular facilities. He shut the borders. And, until communism collapsed in 1990, public expressions of faith were banned.

(…)

The life of Pllumi, a frail man who spoke in his tiny room in the Franciscan monastery where priests were once jailed, embodies the story of this country’s relationship with faith. First arrested for being a Catholic priest in the 1940s, when communism initially took hold here, he said, he was released three years later. Then in 1967, the year Hoxha declared Albania officially atheist, Pllumi was detained again and for 22 years was moved among various work camps.

At a copper mine where he was forced to work, he said, he saw a leading Muslim cleric who had also been jailed. Taking away people’s freedom of religion, he said, is a sure way “to make religion strong.”

Pllumi reached beneath his black sweater and showed how he used to secretly make a tiny sign of the cross on his chest. If caught making any gesture of faith — and he was — there was more punishment. Sometimes that meant being tossed into isolation, stripped naked and left on a cold, wet, concrete floor.

He hates to be cold now. Even though the temperature rises to nearly 60 degrees on these spring days, he said he would wait for warmer weather before going outside. Using a giant magnifying glass, he spends his days reading, often about the world’s religious conflicts. He prays that harmony lasts in Albania, he said. A smile came to his worn face when he recalled how Muslims offered to be his bodyguards when he was finally released from prison and began celebrating outdoor Masses in Shkoder.

Sitting on his bed, covered with a spread decorated with colorful little sailboats, Pllumi said his home town’s religious renaissance proves that faith cannot be wiped out by decree, bulldozers or bullets.

“Religion keeps people alive,” he said.

Full report here.

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