Religious observance and practice is generally lax and polls have shown that, compared to other countries, fewer Albanians consider religion to be a dominant factor in their lives.
Christianity spread to urban centers in the region of Albania (at the time composed mostly Epirus Nova and part of south Illyricum) during the later period of Roman invasion and reached the region relatively early. St. Paul preached the Gospel “even unto Illyricum” (Romans 15:19). Schnabel asserts that Paul probably preached in Shkodra and Durrës. The steady growth of the Christian community in Dyrrhachium (the Roman name for Epidamnus) led to the creation of a local bishopric in 58 AD. Later, episcopal seats were established in Apollonia, Buthrotum (modern Butrint), and Scodra (modern Shkodra).In the 2nd to the 4th centuries the main language to spread the Christian religion was Latin, whereas in the 4th to the 5th centuries it was Greek in Epirus and Macedonia and Latin in Praevalitana and Dardania.Middle Ages
Since the 1st and 2nd century AD, Christianity had become the established religion in Byzantium, supplanting pagan polytheism and eclipsing for the most part the humanistic world outlook and institutions inherited from the Greek and Roman civilizations. But, though the country was in the fold of Byzantium, Christians in the region remained under the jurisdiction of the Roman pope until 732. In that year the iconoclast Byzantine emperor Leo III, angered by archbishops of the region because they had supported Rome in the Iconoclastic Controversy, detached the church of the province from the Roman pope and placed it under the patriarch of Constantinople. When the Christian church split in 1054 between the East and Rome,the region of southern Albania retained its ties to Constantinople while the north reverted to the jurisdiction of Rome. This split in marked the first significant religious fragmentation in the region.
The Albanians first appear in the historical record in Byzantine sources of the 11th century. At this point, they are already fully Christianized. All Albanians were Orthodox Christians until the middle of the 13th century when the Ghegs were converted to Catholicism as a mean to resist the Slavs.
Renaissance and Early Modern Period
Approximate distribution of religions in Albania in the early 1900s, based on the 1908 Ottoman census and the 1918 Albanian census.
During the 20th century after Independence (1912) the democratic, monarchic and later the totalitarian regimes followed a systematic dereligionization of the nation and the national culture. Albania never had an official state religion either as a republic or as a kingdom after its restoration in 1912. Religious tolerance in Albania was born of national expediency and a general lack of religious convictions.
Originally under the monarchy, institutions of all confessions were put under state control. In 1923, following the government program, the Albanian Muslim congress convened at Tirana decided to break with the Caliphate, established a new form of prayer (standing, instead of the traditional salah ritual), banished polygamy and did away with the mandatory use of veil (hijab) by women in public, which had been forced on the urban population by the Ottomans during the occupation.
In 1929 the Albanian Orthodox Church was declared autocephalous.
A year later, in 1930, the first official religious census was carried out. Reiterating conventional Ottoman data from a century earlier which previously covered double the new state’s territory and population, 50% of the population was grouped as Sunni Muslim, 20% as Orthodox Christian, 20% as Bektashi Muslim and 10% as Catholic Christian.
The monarchy was determined that religion should no longer be a foreign-oriented master dividing the Albanians, but a nationalized servant uniting them. It was at this time that newspaper editorials began to disparage the almost universal adoption of Muslim and Christian names, suggesting instead that children be given neutral Albanian names.
Official slogans began to appear everywhere. “Religion separates, patriotism unites.” “We are no longer Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, we are all Albanians.” “Our religion is Albanism.” The national hymn characterized neither Muhammad nor Jesus Christ, but King Zogu as “Shpëtimtari i Atdheut” (Savior of the Fatherland). The hymn to the flag honored the soldier dying for his country as a “Saint.” Increasingly the mosque and the church were expected to function as servants of the state, the patriotic clergy of all faiths preaching the gospel of Albanism.
Monarchy stipulated that the state should be neutral, with no official religion and that the free exercise of religion should be extended to all faiths. Neither in government nor in the school system should favor be shown to any one faith over another. Albanism was substituted for religion, and officials and schoolteachers were called “apostles” and “missionaries.” Albania’s sacred symbols were no longer the cross and the crescent, but the Flag and the King. Hymns idealizing the nation, Skanderbeg, war heroes, the king and the flag predominated in public-school music classes to the exclusion of virtually every other theme.
The first reading lesson in elementary schools introduced a patriotic catechism beginning with this sentence, “I am an Albanian. My country is Albania.” Then there follows in poetic form, “But man himself, what does he love in life?” “He loves his country.” “Where does he live with hope? Where does he want to die?” “In his country.” “Where may he be happy, and live with honor?” “In Albania.”
Enver Hoxha declared Albania an atheist state and attempted to remove all organized religion from the country
Before the communists took power in 1944, it was estimated that of Albania’s population of roughly 1,180,500 persons, about 70% belonged to Islamic sects while 30% belonged to Christian sects. Among the Muslims, at least 200,000 (or 17%) were Bektashis, while most of the rest were Sunnis, in addition to a collection of much smaller orders. Among the Christians, 212500 (18%) were Orthodox while 142000 (12%) were Catholic.
The Agrarian Reform Law of August 1946 nationalized most property of religious institutions, including the estates of monasteries, orders, and dioceses. Many clergy and believers were tried, tortured, and executed. All foreign Roman Catholic priests, monks, and nuns were expelled in 1946.
Religious communities or branches that had their headquarters outside the country, such as the Jesuit and Franciscan orders, were henceforth ordered to terminate their activities in Albania. Religious institutions were forbidden to have anything to do with the education of the young, because that had been made the exclusive province of the state. All religious communities were prohibited from owning real estate and from operating philanthropic and welfare institutions and hospitals. Although there were tactical variations in First Secretary of the Communist Party Enver Hoxha‘s approach to each of the major denominations, his overarching objective was the eventual destruction of all organized religion in Albania. Between 1945 and 1953, the number of priests was reduced drastically and the number of Roman Catholic churches was decreased from 253 to 100, and all Catholics were stigmatized as fascists.
The campaign against religion peaked in the 1960s. Beginning in 1967 the Albanian authorities began a violent campaign to try to eliminate religious life in Albania. Despite complaints, even by Party of Labour of Albania members, all churches, mosques,tekkes, monasteries, and other religious institutions were either closed down or converted into warehouses, gymnasiums, or workshops by the end of 1967. By May 1967, religious institutions had been forced to relinquish all 2,169 churches, mosques, cloisters, and shrines in Albania, many of which were converted into cultural centres for young people. As the literary monthly Nendori reported the event, the youth had thus “created the first atheist nation in the world.”
The clergy were publicly vilified and humiliated, their vestments taken and desecrated. More than 200 clerics of various faiths were imprisoned, others were forced to seek work in either industry or agriculture, and some were executed or starved to death. The monastery of the Franciscan order in Shkodër was set on fire, which resulted in the death of four elderly monks.
Article 37 of the Albanian Constitution of 1976 stipulated, “The State recognises no religion, and supports atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in the people”, and the penal code of 1977 imposed prison sentences of three to ten years for “religious propaganda and the production, distribution, or storage of religious literature.” A new decree that in effect targeted Albanians with Islamic and religiously-tinged Christian names stipulated that citizens whose names did not conform to “the political, ideological, or moral standards of the state” were to change them. It was also decreed that towns and villages with religious names must be renamed. Hoxha’s brutal antireligious campaign succeeded in eradicating formal worship, but some Albanians continued to practice their faith clandestinely, risking severe punishment. Individuals caught with Bibles, icons, or other religious objects faced long prison sentences. Religious weddings were prohibited. Parents were afraid to pass on their faith, for fear that their children would tell others. Officials tried to entrap practicing Christians and Muslims during religious fasts, such as Lent and Ramadan, by distributing dairy products and other forbidden foods in school and at work, and then publicly denouncing those who refused the food, and clergy who conducted secret services were incarcerated.
The article was interpreted as violating The United Nations Charter (chapter 9, article 55) which declares that religious freedom is an inalienable human right. The first time that the question of religious oppression in Albania came before the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights at Geneva was as late as 7 March 1983. A delegation from Denmark got its protest over Albania’s violation of religious liberty placed on the agenda of the thirty-ninth meeting of the commission, item 25, reading, “Implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief.” There was little consequence at first, but on 20 July 1984 a member of the Danish Parliament inserted an article in one of Denmark’s major newspapers protesting the violation of religious freedom in Albania.
After the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985, his successor, Ramiz Alia, adopted a relatively tolerant stance toward religious practice, referring to it as “a personal and family matter.” Émigré clergymen were permitted to reenter the country in 1988 and officiate at religious services. Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, visited Tirana in 1989, where she was received by the foreign minister and by Hoxha’s widow. In December 1990, the ban on religious observance was officially lifted, in time to allow thousands of Christians to attend Christmas services.
About 10.03% of the Albania′s population adheres to Roman Catholic Christianity as of 2011 census. Albania once numbered eighteen episcopal Sees, some of them having uninterrupted activity from the dawn of the Catholicism until today. The country has been the first Roman Catholic bridgehead in the Balkans, with Catholic Albanians playing a role not unlike the Croats in the former Yugoslavia. Today, they are dominant in a compact territory comprising most of northern Albania, but may be found in Tirana and elsewhere.
For four centuries, the Catholic Albanians defended their faith, aided by Franciscan missionaries, beginning in the middle of the 17th century, when persecution by Ottoman Turkish lords in Albania started to result in the conversion of many villages to the Islamic faith, particularly among the Orthodox population.
The College of Propaganda at Rome played a significant role in the religious and moral support of the Albanian Catholics. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the College contributed in educating young clerics appointed to service on Albanian missions, as well as to the financial support of the churches. Work was done by the Austrian Government at the time, which offered significant financial aid in its role as Protector of the Christian community under Ottoman rule.
Church legislation of the Albanians was reformed by Clement XI, who convoked a general ecclesiastical visitation, held in 1763 by the Archbishop of Antivari, by the end of which a national synod was held. The decrees formulated by the Synod were printed by the College of Propaganda in 1705, and renewed in 1803. In 1872, Pius IX convoked a second national synod at Shkodër, for the revival of the popular and ecclesiastical life. Owing to Austrian interest in Albania, the institution of the Catholic bishops of Albania was obtained through a civil decree released by the Vilajet of Berat.
Albania was divided ecclesiastically into several archiepiscopal provinces:
- Scutari, with the suffragan Sees of Alessio, Pulati, Sappa and (since 1888) the Abbatia millius of St. Alexander of Orosci.
The last two archiepiscopal provinces did not have any suffragans, and depended directly on the Holy See. A seminary, founded in 1858 by Archbishop Topich of Scutari, was destroyed by the Ottomans, but was later re-established on Austrian territory and placed under imperial protection.
According to the 2011 census, 6.75% of the Albanian population adhere to the Albanian Orthodox Church. Three ethnic groups, Albanians, Greeks, and Aromanians, account for the vast majority of Albania’s Orthodox believers. Metropolitan Theofan Fan Noli established the Albanian Orthodox Mission under the American diocese.
Although Orthodox Christianity has existed in Albania since the 2nd century AD, and the Orthodox historically constituted 20% of the population of Albania, the first Orthodox liturgy in the Albanian language was celebrated not in Albania, but in Massachusetts. Subsequently, when the Orthodox Church was allowed no official existence in communist Albania, Albanian Orthodoxy survived in exile in Boston (1960–89). It is a curious history that closely entwines Albanian Orthodoxy with the Bay State.
Between 1890 and 1920, approximately 25,000 Albanians, the majority of them Orthodox Christians from southeastern Albania, emigrated to the United States, settling in and around Boston. Like many other Orthodox immigrants, they were predominantly young, illiterate, male peasants. Like so many other Balkan immigrants, a large number (almost 10,000) returned to their homeland after World War I.
Since the 2nd century AD, the liturgical services, schools and activities of the Orthodox Church in Albania had been conducted in Greek. When Albania came under Ottoman influence in the 15th century the Orthodox people of Albania were members of the Archbishopric of Ohrid which was officially recognized by the Ottoman Empire.
Those Albanian Orthodox, who, in the fashion of 19th century Balkan nationalism, sought to recreate their church as an Albanian rather than Greek body, were frequently excommunicated by the Greek-speaking hierarchy. Considering that identity during the Ottoman centuries was gauged exclusively through ecclesiastical affiliations, religious questions in the post-Ottoman period loomed large in the burgeoning national and cultural identities. After the loss of its ecumenical status in 1870 with the establishment of the Bulgarian exarchate, the Greek Church did not desire further schisms within its ranks. Indeed, so strong was the rivalry of Greece with Orthodox Albanians who opted for separate cultural activities, that many of the latter category such as Papa Kristo Negovani, a priest educated in Greek schools, Sotir Ollani, Petro Nini Luarasi, Nuci Naco and others were murdered for their patriotic efforts.
Patriotic fervor ran high in Albanian immigrant communities in North America. When, in 1906, a Greek priest from an independent Greek parish in Hudson, Massachusetts, refused to bury an Albanian nationalist, an outraged Albanian community petitioned the missionary diocese to assist them in establishing a separate Albanian-language parish within the missionary diocese. Fan Noli, an ardent Albanian nationalist and former parish cantor, was subsequently ordained in February 1908 by a sympathetic Metropolitan Platon to serve this new Albanian parish. Noli went on to organize five additional Albanian parishes, mainly in Massachusetts, as an Albanian Orthodox Mission in America under the auspices of the American diocese. Noli later emigrated to Albania, served as the Albanian delegate to the League of Nations, was consecrated Bishop and Primate of the independent Orthodox Church in Albania in 1923, and even served briefly as Prime Minister of Albania (came in power with the so-called The Revolution of 1924) but was overthrown in a coup by Ahmet Zogu on the same year. After years in exile in Germany, Noli returned to the United States in 1932, studied at Harvard, translated Shakespeare into Albanian and Orthodox Scriptures and services into English, and led the Albanian Orthodox community in this country until his death in 1965.
Islam is the largest religion in Albania, representing 58.79% of the population according to 2011 census. One of the major legacies of nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule was that the majority of Albanians, according to Ottoman data, had converted toIslam. Therefore, the nation emerged as a Muslim-majority country after Albania’s independence in November 1912.
In the North, the spread of Islam was slower due to Roman Catholic Church resistance and the mountainous terrain. In the center and south, however, Catholicism was not as strong and by the end of the 17th century the region had largely adopted the religion of the growing Albanian Muslim elite. The existence of an Albanian Muslim class of pashas and beys who played an increasingly important role in Ottoman political and economic life became an attractive career option for most Albanians. Widespread illiteracy and the absence of educated clergy also played roles in the spread of Islam, especially in northern Albanian-inhabited regions. Additionally, Ottomon rulers sometimes forced conversions during times of war against Christian powers such as the Venetian Republic, Austria and Russia, because they feared their Christian subjects might be disloyal.
In the 20th century, the power of Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox clergy was weakened during the monarchy years and eradicated during the 1940s and 1950s, under the state policy of obliterating all organized religion from Albanian territories.
The Muslims of Albania during the Ottoman invasion were divided into two main communities: those associated with Sunni Islam and those associated with the Bektashi Shiism, a mystic Dervish order that came to Albania through the Albanian Janissaries that served in the Ottoman army and who practiced Albanian pagan rites under a nominal Islamic cover. After the Bektashis were banned in Turkey in 1925 by Atatürk, the order moved its headquarters to Tirana and the Albanian government subsequently recognized it as a body independent from Sunnism. Sunni Muslims were estimated to represent approximately 50% of the country’s population before 1939, while Bektashi represented another 20%. There is also a relatively minority of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Muslim populations have been particularly strong in eastern and northern Albania and between Albanians living in Kosovo or Macedonia.
Sunni Muslims have historically lived in the cities of Albania, while Bektashis mainly in remote areas, whereas Orthodox Christians mainly in the south, and Roman Catholics in the north of the country. However, this division does not apply nowadays.Today 65% of Albanian Muslims are non-denominational Muslims.
On December 1992 Albania became a full member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).
Over the course of World War II Albania saw its Jewish population increase. During the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the Socialist People’s Republic of Albania banned all religions, including Judaism, in adherence to the doctrine of state atheism. In the post-Communist era, these policies were abandoned and freedom of religion was extended, although the number of practicing Jews in Albania today remains small, with many Jews having made aliyah to Israel. Today Jews number around 150. In December 2010 Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar installed Rabbi Yoel Kaplan as the country’s first Chief Rabbi. Recognition of Judaism as an official religion and Rabbi Kaplan as Chief Rabbi were the result of Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s efforts.
According to 2011 census, 58.79% of Albania adheres to Islam, making it the largest religion in the country. The majority of Albanian Muslims are secular Sunni with a significant Bektashi Shia minority. Christianity is practiced by 16.99% of the population, making it the 2nd largest religion in the country. The remaining population is either irreligious or belongs to other religious groups.
Muslims are found throughout the country, while Orthodox followers are concentrated in the south and Catholics in the north. However, this division is not strict, particularly in many urban centers, which have mixed populations. Members of the Greek minority, concentrated in the south, belong almost exclusively to the Orthodox Church. In addition to the four traditional religious groups, there are substantial numbers of followers of Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses,the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and other religious groups.
The State Committee on Cults reported a total of 245 religious groups, organizations, and foundations in addition to the 4 traditional faiths. This number includes 34 different Islamic organizations and 189 Protestant organizations, mostly associated with the Albanian Evangelical Brotherhood (Vëllazëria Ungjillore Shqiptare).
The World Christian Database puts the percentages at 38.8% Muslim (30% Sunni and 8.8% Bektashi), 36.5% Christian (22% Eastern Orthodox and 13.5% Roman Catholic), 5.3% agnostic, 0.7% atheist and 0.2% Baha’i.
These are only the official statistics of 1935, however, and since then much has changed. Bashkim Zeneli, former Albanian ambassador to Greece, said that about 900,000 Albanians have emigrated to Greece in 20 years, and around 200,000 of them have returned to Albania. From this, around 240,000 are said to be Muslim by heritage, and around 85,000 have returned to Albania. Although they presently live in Albania, a lot of them continue to be Orthodox.
According to the 2007–2008 Gallup polls, 63% of Albanians state that religion does not play an important role in their life.
In a census performed before World War II, a rough distribution of population was 70% Muslims, 20% Eastern Orthodox, and 10% Roman Catholics. 65% of Albanian Muslims are non-denominational Muslims. In 1967, religious practices were officially banned in Albania, making the country the first and only constitutionally atheist state to ever exist. After the fall of state communism, in 1991 religious activities resumed. Among people who follow any of the four major religions in Albania, there is a mixture of various religious traditions and pagan traditions coming from the time before Christianity.
The results of the 2011 census, however, have been criticized as questionable on a number of grounds. The Albanian Orthodox church refused to recognize the results, saying they had drastically underrepresented the number of Orthodox Christians and noted various indications of this and ways it may have occurred. The Orthodox church claimed that from its own calculations, the Orthodox percentage should have been around 24%, rather than 6.75%. Meanwhile, the Bektashi leadership also lambasted the results, which even more drastically reduced their representation down to 2%, also rejected the results and said it would conduct its own census to refute the results. Minority organizations (of Greeks and Roma) also claimed minorities were underrepresented and the Greek organization Omonia argued that this was linked to the under-representation of the Orthodox population. The Orthodox percentage reported might be lower than the actual value due to boycotts of the census, but also because the census staff failed to contact a very large number of people in the south which is traditionally an Orthodox stronghold, The Orthodox Church said that according to a questionnaire it gave its followers during two Sunday liturgies in urban centers such as Durrësi, Berati and Korça, only 34% of its followers were actually contacted. The districts of Lushnja and Fieri (comprising the historic region of Myzeqe), which are far from any international borders and have an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population (except for a few Vlachs and Roma), were historically around 55% and 65% Orthodox historically, reported figures roughly were a factor of five times lower. This caused furor in the Albanian media, with one priest saying that in Myzeqe alone there should be about 200,000 Orthodox Albanians- a bigger number than reported for the whole of Albania. There were other serious allegations about the conduct of the census workers that might have impacted on the 2011 census results. There were some reported cases where workers filled out the questionnaire about religion without even asking the participants or that the workers used pencils which were not allowed. In some cases communities declared that census workers never even contacted them. Additionally, the preliminary results released seemed to give widely different results, with 70% of respondents refusing to declare belief in any of the listed faiths, compared with only 16% of atheists and undeclared in the final results. It was reported in Albanian media that there were instances of pollsters telling respondents that the religion question would be filled out for them.
However, even among those who declared a religion, the majority of the population in Albania has a more secular interpretation of religion than would be found in other countries. An August 2012, a Pew Research study found out that only 15% of the Muslim population for example, consider religion as a very important factor in their lives, which was the lowest percentage in the world amongst countries with significant Muslim populations. Another survey conducted by Gallup Global Reports 2010 shows that religion plays a role to 39% of Albanians, and lists Albania as the thirteenth least religious country in the world.
Places of worship
Freedom of religion
The Constitution extends freedom of religion to all citizens and the government generally respects this right in practice. The Albanian Constitution declares no official religion and provides for equality of all religions; however, the predominant religious communities (Bektashi, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox and Roman Catholic) enjoy a greater degree of official recognition (e.g. national holidays) and social status based on their historical presence in the country. All registered religious groups have the right to hold bank accounts and to own property and buildings. Religious freedoms have in large part been secured by the generally amicable relationship among religions. The Ministry of Education has the right to approve the curricula of religious schools to ensure their compliance with national education standards while the State Committee on Cults oversees implementation. There are also 68 vocational training centers administered by religious communities.
Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free exercise of religion. The government is laicist and the Ministry of Education asserts that public schools in the country are secular and that the law prohibits ideological and religious indoctrination. Religion is not taught in public schools.
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