Albania: Christ in the air-raid shelter
In Jaru the Catholics are celebrating Holy Mass in an air-raid shelter from the communist era
by Eva-Maria Kolmann
He took God away from the Albanians and built them air-raid shelters: the dictator Enver Hoxha, who headed a Stalinist terror regime from 1944 to 1985 and brutally persecuted any religious practice, had more than 750,000 air-raid shelters built which disfigured the landscape of this South-east European country for decades. The aim was to have one underground shelter for every four inhabitants. They were intended primarily not to protect people, but to demonstrate the omnipotence and ubiquitous nature of the paranoid dictator. Where God is declared dead, fear bears bizarre blossoms.
Since the political transformation many of the air-raid shelters have been demolished, but some have been put to new use: as a unique form of tourist accommodation, and also as churches. For example, in the year 2000 Slovak Conventual Franciscans in Jaru, Southern Albania, turned a concrete shelter into a House of God because there was no Catholic church available. It seems to be a particularly powerful sign of providence that an air-raid shelter has been converted into a House of God in an area that during the Hoxha era, housed a military base in Jaru and in the adjacent town of Shtylass, an internment camp for political prisoners. The large crucifix which the Fathers set up next to the shelter's entrance to enable people to recognise the building as a church from a distance would have meant a death sentence in the communist era. Even hanging a cross in a private dwelling was subject to the death penalty, let alone hanging it up in a public area. But today the Stations of the Cross hang on the bare concrete walls of the air-raid shelter, and behind the altar hangs a crucifix and alongside an image of the Virgin Mary. The bare wall behind the altar is covered by a blue curtain.
(Inside the Bunker Church in Jaru © ACN)
The Franciscan order was dissolved in Albania in 1947. More than 30 Franciscan monks were martyred. The Conventual Franciscans working there today are missionaries from abroad, as are most of the other Catholic Priests. It will take some time before the Catholic Church manages to stand on its own feet again. A large number of the native priesthood were executed in the communist era or died as a result of ill treatment. When the persecution reached its peak and any kind of religious practice was prohibited by law in 1967, all 268 Catholic churches and 2000 Orthodox churches and monasteries as well as mosques were closed, demolished or used for other purposes, e.g as gymnasiums. Thousands of believers were tortured and interned or killed. In 1971, for example, the 74-year-old priest Stjefen Kurti was executed in the Lushnjë camp. "He dies by an executioner's bullet because he spoke over a child the words which are the oldest preserved monument of the Albanian language: 'I baptise you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost'", wrote the historian Rudolf Grulich. The 80-year-old Bishop Ernesto Coba was beaten to death while interned in 1979 because he attempted to celebrate Holy Mass at Easter. Cardinal Mikel Koliqiwas was one of the few shepherds of the Church who survived the internment camps. He was arrested in 1946 and condemned to forced labour in the malaria-infested swamp areas. He was confined in camps and prisons for forty years and continued to practise his faith in secret. He died in 1997 at the venerable age of 94 years.
In the south of Albania there were also courageous believers who passed the faith on. They went secretly into the mountains to pray. They buried the bells, icons and communion Hosts to safeguard them against desecration. Despite this brave adherence to the faith, the many decades of atheistic dominance have left deep marks. When the Slovak Conventual Franciscan Jaroslav Car came to Jaru in 2000 most people had never seen a priest before. The children ran after the man who wore a monk's habit and a full beard, and they cried out: "Jesus has come". This cry contains a profound truth. After all, Father Jaroslav and his brothers really did bring Jesus to Jaru. They had to start from scratch with their pastoral work since a number of generations had already been brought up without God and didn't even know the sign of the cross. Their work is bearing fruit: today the parish has several hundred believers.
(Father Jaroslav Car (Franciscan Father) outside the Bunker Church in Jaru. © ACN)
Enver Hoxha is dead. Jesus lives. He has moved into air-raid shelters which a paranoid dictator had built, and he has moved into the hearts of people who were deprived of God for decades. Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of the Catholic charity "Aid to the Church in Need", already believed in the fall of communism when those in the West were still convinced the regime in Eastern Europe would not falter in the foreseeable future. As early as the 1960s and 1970s he had repeatedly predicted: "The colossal portraits of the modern Goliaths looking down so challengingly at the crowds from the walls of all the Kremlins, will be reduced to ribbons and their bones turned to dust. The portraits will give place to the icons and the truth will be confirmed for all eternity of what the Church at Easter puts on Christ’s lips and ours: 'I am risen and am with you still, alleluia. You have placed your hands on me, alleluia. Your wisdom is wonderful, alleluia, alleluia. '"
At the present time faith is undergoing in Albania a delicate flowering, and especially among the Catholics. They may only constitute a relatively small minority within the population, but the believers are predominantly young: in all the average age of the Albanian population is just 30 years. And so the churches are also full of young people. In the past year "Aid to the Church in Need" has supported projects in Albania to the tune of $260,000.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 162 languages and 48 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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