Catholic Albanians live in Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia as well as Albania proper. They are descendants of the Illyrians who embraced Christianity in the early Christian centuries and managed to survive the great contraction of Christianity in the region during Ottoman rule; partly thanks to the Catholic Albanian, Skanderbeg, who led a great resistance to the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century.
During the centuries of Ottoman rule from the 15th to 19th centuries, Catholics were reduced to a minority within Albanian territories. Latin Rite Catholics were concentrated chiefly in the mountainous area of the north. Eastern Rite Catholics were found in southern and central Albania.
The Ottoman government was suspicious of Albanian Catholics because the popes were both powerful politically and based outside their territories. During the centuries of Ottoman rule, the Latin archbishoprics of Shkodra and Durres, as well as the monastery of St Alexander in Mirdites, depended directly on Rome. The Catholic community of Albania was adopted at various times by Venice, other Italian states and France, until the Austro-Hungarian empire began to assume the protection of Catholics in Albanian territories.
Under this protection, during the 19th century, Catholics played a crucial role in reviving national consciousness and preserving the Albanian language. Albanian Catholics were, on the whole, well educated and they played an influential part in the movement that led to the independence of Albania in 1912. However, after five centuries of Ottoman rule, and the conversions that accompanied it, Albanian Catholics had fallen in number. (Today, they comprise just 12 per cent of the population in Albania and six per cent in Kosovo.) Meanwhile, the great powers ceded half of the mountainous Catholic area of Malësia to Montenegro (from 1881-1913).
Nonetheless, Albanian Catholics, secular and religious, played a significant role in the formation of Albanian institutions and diplomacy before and after the First World War. In particular, during the period 1912-1944, Catholics helped build an advanced school system. At the 1919 Versailles conference, the Albanian delegation was led by Mgr, later Bishop, Bumçi, who emphasised the unity of Albanians of all religions.
The Communists came to power in Albania in 1945 under Enver Hoxha, whose ideological fanaticism was compounded by vindictiveness. From 1945, the open persecution of the Church and of Albanian Catholics began. Missionary activity was paralysed, and priests were isolated and killed. Church records show that during 46 years of dictatorship, 228 clerics were interrogated, deported to internment camps or imprisoned; an estimated 139 were executed or died in prison.
In the early years of the Hoxha regime, the Church’s educational structure was destroyed. Its contribution to Albanian culture, from prior to the Ottoman invasion to the modern era, was denied. The regime put particular emphasis on erasing the Church’s role in Albanian literature and in the foundation of the first Albanian language schools; the role of Catholic priests and intellectuals in Albanian nation-building was suppressed.
Hoxha’s hatred of the Church partly derived from the role that the clergy had played in Albania’s cultural and political rebirth. Most Albanian priests had been educated in foreign universities, and they represented a vital part of the country’s intellectual elite. They simultaneously protected local customs and integrated Albania into a European context. Their political goal was freedom and equality within the state for all citizens and as such they represented a serious threat to Communist rule – and in our own day, to the less than fully democratic governments in Tirana (Albania) and Pristina (Kosovo).
The oppression that the Church suffered in Albania under Communism was all-encompassing, at its worst during the early years, 1945-8, and in the Albanian Cultural Revolution, 1967-8, when religious institutions and activities were outlawed, culminating in Hoxha’s proclamation in 1967 of the world’s first constitutionally atheist state. The damage inflicted in the Sixties is almost indescribable. All the Church’s material assets were confiscated or destroyed, the buildings either razed or converted to other uses, including a number of historic churches built by Franciscans and Dominicans when they first came to Albania. The Catholic community suffered exclusion from social and political life and education, and from the destruction of their property. Catholics had no political representation.
With the fall of the dictatorship in 1991, the position of the Catholic community was difficult after so many years of exclusion. Most of the Catholic community in the capital of northern Albania, Shkodra, emigrated. Since then, there has been only partial progress towards representative leadership and integration of Catholics into political life. In my view, progress has slowed particularly when the Socialists have been in government. They have never apologised for the persecution of the Church under Communism.
The Constitutional Convention, whereby the three highest positions of state should be divided among the elected representatives of the three religions in Albania (Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic) has sometimes been disregarded. For seven years the government has failed to send a representative to the Holy See.
The very welcome visit by Pope Francis to Tirana in 2016, and the Vatican’s canonisation of the 38 Albanian martyrs of the Communist era, was not just an official recognition of a dark chapter in Albania’s history, but also a sign of support for the proper integration of Albania’s Catholic population into political and social life. Nevertheless, today the Albanian Catholic community is undergoing dramatic decline, not least because of failures to ensure its fair representation in administration and government.
In Kosovo, in the post-Yugoslav era, almost 60 per cent of the community has emigrated, mainly to Croatia, Switzerland and Germany. There are currently 35,000 native Catholics in Kosovo and an estimated 40,000 abroad. In rare cases, Catholics have fled direct persecution; but their departure is due more to general insecurity and unemployment, the absence of fair competition and political corruption.
The Catholic Church has a good reputation in Kosovo and there are no curbs on its activities. But the needs of the Catholic citizens of Kosovo for equal treatment in what is a secular state have been ignored. A bill to provide legal status for religious communities in Kosovo has still not been passed nor approved. Successive governments in Kosovo have not provided for the adequate representation of Catholics in the government, administration, police and army.
What Catholics in Kosovo and Albania need is the constitutional guarantee of proper representation for Catholics in parliament and in the institutions of the state. Without that protection, the exodus of Albanian Catholics will, alas, continue.
Romeo Gurakuqi is a former Member of Parliament and a professor at the Academy of Albanian Studies in Tirana