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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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A tiny community of Jews also lived in Albania, and they as well as several thousand Jewish refugees from Nazism were protected by the Albanians during World War II. Albanians are extremely proud that even while their territory was occupied by the Nazis, not a single Jew was handed over to the Germans in Albania itself, and fewer than 35 Jews were deported by the Germans from Kosovo, according to new research in the Albanian national archives. Judaism has revived in Albania, and a new synagogue opened in Tirana, the Albanian capital, at the end of 2010.

Albanians were, and to a considerable degree are still, distinctive for the mutual respect between Sunni Muslims, Bektashis, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Jews. Given that nobody else in the world speaks their language, Albanian interreligious cooperation is indispensable for national unity. Anti-Catholic agitation by Muslim radical interlopers in Kosovo last year was remarkable for the condemnation it attracted from the public.

 Notwithstanding their minority position, Catholics have played a leading role in Albanian history and culture. Mother Teresa was an Albanian born in Macedonia, and in the 19th century Catholic intellectuals were prominent in advancing Albanian-language literacy. In 1908, a congress of Albanian religious and political figures led by the Franciscan friar Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), one of Albania’s leading national poets, and Midhat Frasheri (1880-1949), a Bektashi, adopted a Latin-based alphabet for their language. Catholics and Bektashis took the lead in printing newspapers, magazines, and books, both secular and religious, as their nation resisted the exclusive use of Turkish in schools, imposed by their Ottoman masters.

The service of the Catholic enlighteners to their compatriots was worse than irrelevant to Enver Hoxha’s Communist cadres, who gained control of Albania in 1944. Catholic prestige was, predictably, a threat to the new regime. The “socialist transformation” of the country included a bloody and wide-ranging purge of its leading Catholic exponents, nearly all of them executed after show trials. The roster of “the Albanian martyrs” is a long and shocking one, including two generations of scholars, poets, and other authors.

When Gjon Sinishta founded the Albanian Catholic Information Center 20 years later, his goal was different from that found typically in such an institution. He received some financial help from church authorities, but dedicated much of his own time and money, as well as funds from private supporters, to the project. More than assisting the Albanian Catholic parishes in the United States, or supporting the missionary work of the church, Sinishta sustained an unwavering commitment to documenting the crimes inflicted by the Communists on all religious Albanians, whether Christian or Muslim.

In 1968 he moved from Michigan to California, to the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit school, joining its administrative staff. But he did not cease collecting information about religious persecution in Albania. In 1976 he put out a 248-page volume, The Fulfilled Promise, composed of profiles, photographs, and testimony on the Hoxha regime’s extermination of Catholic clergy, intellectuals, and ordinary believers—including young men and women.

In 1980 he launched the Albanian Catholic Bulletin/Buletini Katolik Shqiptar. But, to emphasize, Sinishta was interested in revealing the truth to the whole world, and not simply to other Albanians. In 1989, the Albanian Catholic Bulletin’s 10th issue was edited at USF, another Jesuit institution, where Sinishta had moved. There he served in humble tasks at San Francisco’s grand and beautiful St. Ignatius Church, while reorganizing his effort, as the Albanian Catholic Institute.

The Albanian Catholic Bulletin had, in the meantime, become the most important resource on Albanian affairs in English. Its contents included everything having to do with Albania and Albanians, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or dating from Roman times and earlier, in religion, literature, linguistic studies, and art. Its standards were high and its contributions of academic quality. I had the honor of writing for it beginning in 1990.

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