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American Religious Refuge From Communism: An Albanian Catholic’s Story

7:14 AM, Sep 14, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The libraries of the University of San Francisco (USF), a Jesuit institution, this month completed digitizing a unique American periodical, the Albanian Catholic Bulletin, accessible here to any interested readers. The Bulletin came out mainly in English with a small section in Albanian, reversing the usual practice of foreign-language immigrant media.

Published annually, the journal was created and maintained in California for 15 years by an ethnic Albanian exile, Gjon Sinishta, born in 1930 in the former Yugoslav region of Montenegro, today an independent country. His story sheds light on the Cold War, communism, and America’s role in protecting religious freedom and sheltering worthy newcomers.

Sinishta escaped from Yugoslavia to Austria in 1965, and after a stay in Italy came to the United States. He was first schooled by the Jesuits to become a priest, at a distinguished seminary in the north Albanian city of Shkodra. But his novitiate, in Yugoslavia, was left incomplete when that country and Albania broke diplomatic relations. Yugoslavia’s autocratic ruler, Josip Broz Tito, in 1948 turned against Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Albania’s mini-Stalin, Enver Hoxha, stayed loyal, at least temporarily, to Moscow.

Caught between his Albanian identity and his Yugoslav citizenship, and in the conflict between his Catholic conscience and the atheism of both Communist regimes, Sinishta refused to give up his cultural and spiritual heritage. Denied his vocation as a priest, he worked in Yugoslav communications as an Albanian-language announcer and journalist. He declined, however, as a faithful Catholic, to join the Communist party.

In 1956, Sinishta was arrested by the Yugoslav secret police and accused of “dangerous Albanian nationalism,” anti-Communist propaganda, and espionage for America. He was sentenced, without presentation of evidence, to five years in jail. Released in 1961, he was permitted to work as an accountant in Croatia and Slovenia yet was arrested three more times “for being Albanian,” before fleeing to Austria.

Once in America, Sinishta studied at the Catholic institutions of Colombiere College in Clarkston, Mich., and John Carroll University in Cleveland. Never ordained as a priest, he married and had a son. While pursuing his academic studies, he worked in the automobile factories in Detroit, long home to a substantial Albanian-American community.

Sinishta was active in sponsoring and otherwise aiding Albanian immigrants to America, but was most fervent about educating the world regarding the atrocities suffered among Albanians of all religions, and especially the Catholic clergy, under communism. Horrified by the persecution his people had undergone, in 1966 he founded the Albanian Catholic Information Center in Detroit. Sinishta produced his first publication, Sacrifice for Albania, a large-format multilingual report, in 1967.

The moment was appropriate. Enver Hoxha that year declared Albania the world’s first atheist state, and officially suppressed all religious activity.

The Ottomans conquered Albania at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries. The Albanians proclaimed their independence from Turkey in 1912. In Albania proper, Kosovo, western Macedonia, Montenegro, south Serbia, and their immigrant communities in Turkey, Western Europe, the Arab East, and the U.S., Albanian religious adherents are majority Muslim, with about 35 percent of all Albanian believers following Sunni Islam and a relatively equal number affiliated with Bektashi Sufism, a liberal Shia Muslim tradition. Albanian Bektashis are the main group of indigenous Shias in Europe.

The remaining 30 percent of Albanians are typically counted as 20 percent Orthodox Christians and 10 percent Roman Catholics, with the former concentrated in southern Albania and the latter in northern Albania and Kosovo.

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