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One of the poorest, most atheistic places in Europe, Albania is a natural destination for Francis

Francis will do great good in Europe’s only Muslim-majority country

By on Monday, 16 June 2014

Albanian Catholic women at prayer in northern Albania. The Pope visits the country in September (CNS)

Albanian Catholic women at prayer in northern Albania. The Pope visits the country in September (CNS)

Pope Francis is making a day long pastoral visit to Albania this coming September, he has announced. His words at yesterday’s Angelus were as follows: “I want to confirm the Church of Albania in the faith, and bear witness to my encouragement and love for a country that has suffered for so long in consequence of the ideologies of the past.”

This will be the second trip of any Pontiff to the country. (Saint John Paul II was there in the spring of 1993, also for one day.) Indeed, just a few decades ago, back in 1967, Albania, under the leadership of Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labour, was declared the world’s first atheist state. This declaration was not entirely fanciful. Hoxha and his thugs had destroyed every single place of worship, either by demolishing them or turning them into museums of atheism or sports halls. All the clergy were expelled, if they were lucky. This policy worked. Even today, Albania is one of the least religious countries in the world. About ten per cent of the country is Catholic, mainly concentrated in the northern part of the country, and no doubt they could do with a little encouragement from the Pope.

Albania suffers not just from a particularly brutal history under Communism – Comrade Hoxha was in the habit of shooting people dead at party meetings – and being the last country to shake off Communist rule. (Its communism was of a rather odd type, in that Hoxha quarrelled with the Russians, ploughing his own furrow, with some help from the Chinese.)

Until 1913, the country was part of the Ottoman Empire, being more or less the last major Balkan territory to be held by the Turks. Many Albanians served the Ottoman Empire with distinction, and several of the Grand Viziers were Albanian; it was part of the Ottoman tradition to recruit conquered peoples and co-opt them into government: the way this was done was through conversion to Islam. That the Albanians co-operated with the Turks is seen by the fact that even today about 60 per cent of the Albanian population is Muslim. This makes Albania the only European country to have a Muslim majority. (Of the other former Turkish territories, Bosnia is just under half Muslim; and Macedonia is about one-third Muslim.) But these Balkan Muslims are rather different from Muslims in Turkey or Arab countries. Being the last to convert, they wear their Islamic identity lightly. It is for this reason that various stricter exponents of Islam view the Balkans almost as missionary territory, and that much Saudi money has been spent in building mosques in the region.

After the fall of Communism, the Catholic Church had to restart its mission almost from scratch. Quite a few new churches have been built and parishes and dioceses established. Lots of foreign missionaries, from Italy in particular, have gone to work in the country. Seminaries have opened. What makes Albania a special case is that many thousands of Albanians live or have lived in Italy, as economic migrants, and therefore have had some contact with Catholicism and Catholic culture.

Albania is not the poorest country in Europe – that accolade goes to Moldova – but it must look that way to many travellers, quite a few of whom have written scathingly about it. It is certainly not well developed for tourism. Paul Theroux said some very rude things about the place in his book about the Mediterranean, The Pillars of Hercules. Dervla Murphy, the intrepid Balkan traveller, has also written about it in less than glowing terms. But for one traveller in particular, Albania is a natural destination. It has everything for someone like Pope Francis. It represents a turning towards the poor. It is a missionary land, where the Church is not comfortable, but very much on the edge. And it is a place where, I think, he will do much good. The Catholics in Albania must be thrilled by the news he is coming; and other Albanians too must take his visit as a compliment.

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