Pope Francis recently recognized 38 victims of the Albanian communist regime as martyrs to the Catholic faith and announced their upcoming beatification. Enver Hoxha’s communist regime, which ruled Albania between 1946 and 1992, carried out the harshest anti-religious policies in the communist bloc, proclaiming itself the world’s first atheist state. The 38 martyrs are predominantly clerics, but include one laywoman and three laymen.
Before World War II, the Albanian population was about 70% Muslim (mostly Sunni, with a Bektashi minority), 20% Orthodox Christian, and 10% Catholic. Due to the peculiarities of Albanian history, each of these religions had certain foreign associations. Islam in Albania was introduced by the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the country for nearly five centuries; Orthodoxy was associated with neighboring Greece and Serbia; while Catholicism was associated with Italy, which had recently invaded and occupied the country. All were thus suspect to the paranoid, nationalistic communist regime established by Enver Hoxha after the Second World War, especially Catholicism, with its direct allegiance to Rome and overall “western” character.
Albania’s pre-WWII Catholic community numbered about 124,000 people, led by several hundred priests and male and female members of religious orders, both Albanian and foreign-born. The country’s 15 Catholic schools educated over 3,000 children; Catholics also ran orphanages, medical facilities, and presses. With the communist takeover, this community was immediately targeted. 1945 saw the expulsion of the apostolic nuncio (papal ambassador) and the enactment of an agrarian reform law that deprived religious organizations of most of their property, including seminaries, monasteries, and libraries. Between 1945 and 1950, the regime forbade religious involvement in education and even banned religious education outright. Further, it interfered with the inner workings of the church by insisting on pre-approving the text of all sermons and pastoral letters as well as controlling religious appointments. Dictator Enver Hoxha demanded that Bishops Gaspër Thaçi and Vinçenc Prennushi separate from Rome to create a national church, which the prelates refused to do (both would later die while imprisoned). In 1946, all non-Albanian clergy and members of religious orders were expelled from the country and all Jesuit institutions were closed. Show trials culminated in the execution of several priests and other Catholics. In 1948 Bishop Frano Gjini was executed after having an open letter to the dictator read in the country’s churches in which he refused to bow to the regime but offered to collaborate in “reconstructing the nation.” The Jesuits, Franciscans, and all female religious orders were dissolved. Most of the leaders of the Orthodox Church and Muslim communities were also purged. By 1949 Albania’s religious communities were thoroughly cowed.
Recognizing the difficulty of uprooting such a well-established element of the country’s social and spiritual life, Albania’s communist cadres planned a multifaceted, anti-religious campaign. Communist discourse characterized religion as an archaic, irrational force that compared unfavorably with scientific Marxism. They charged it with supporting the power of the upper classes, oppressing women, and causing economic inefficiency by shortening the working year with its feast days.
After a lull in repression during a period of precarious relations with Yugoslavia and the Soviet bloc, Albania’s anti-religious policies returned with a vengeance in 1966. In that year, Albania launched a Cultural Revolution concurrent with that of its patron, the People’s Republic of China. Mass meetings were held in which the churches were denounced and people pledged to renounce religion forever. In 1967, the People’s Assembly annulled the laws guaranteeing religious freedom to the Christian and Muslim communities under the rationale that Marxism-Leninism demanded the full abolition of religion. Albania was declared the first atheist state in the world.
The crackdown was fierce. By the end of 1967, all religious buildings in Albania—over 2,000 of them, including 327 Roman Catholic—had been shut, torched, or converted into sports facilities and other public installations. Religious services were banned outright; storing or distributing religious literature or paraphernalia was grounds for imprisonment and forced labor. One of the 38 martyrs recognized by Pope Francis, Father Shtjefën Kurti, was executed for illegally baptizing a child. Parents were discouraged from naming their children after saints: a 1975 law even ordered all citizens whose names didn’t conform to the ideological standards of the state to change them.
After the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985, his successor Ramiz Alia, who in the years previous had been closely involved with the anti-religious campaign, began to liberalize the country’s policies, allowing visits from Christian and Muslim leaders from abroad, including Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian. In 1990, freedom of religion was restored, and the first Catholic church and the first mosque were reopened. The 2008 constitution, approved in a nationwide referendum, established the rule of law and guaranteed the Albanian people fundamental rights and liberties including the freedom of religion. Meanwhile, the communist Party of Labor transformed itself into the Socialist Party of Albania, which governs in Albania today. It has never officially apologized for its persecution of the Catholic Church in the country.