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BALKAN SPRING 2000 - Part 2

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Val and I went to Albania on Sunday 7 May 2000. We travelled on the plane from Athens with Fr Luke Veronis, his wife Faith, and their children Paul and Theodora.

Seminary chapel at Shen Vlash, Albania
I began teaching at the seminary on Monday 8 May. The seminary is at Shen Vlash, about 40 km from Tirana near the port of Durres on the Adriatic Sea. There had been a church and monastery there before, but they were demolished by the Hoxha (pronounced Hodja) regime about 30 years ago. In 1967 Albania was declared to be an atheist state, and all temples, mosques and other religious buildings were closed. Some were converted to other uses, and many were demolished altogether.

In 1991 democracy came to Albania, and religious freedom was restored. No Orthodox bishops had survived the Hoxha regime, and most of the few surviving priests had been in prison. Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos was appointed Archbishop to revive the Orthodox Church of Albania, and he decided to build the seminary at Shen Vlash to symbolise that revival. The seminary now has about 60 students doing a three-year course, with about 20 students in each year. About two-thirds of the students are male, and one-third female. I taught the same course, on Orthodox mission history and methods, to all three years

For the first couple of classes, I asked the students to tell me about themselves and their churches. Many of the stories were very similar. There was a church, or two or three or four churches in their village. The communists demolished them in 1967. One of them had been rebuilt, or is being rebuilt. Some went further back, and said that people in the village knew of sites of churches that had been demolished much earlier - by the Turks in the 15th or 16th centuries. Students from Durres told me of the tomb of St Asti, the first Albanian bishop, and the second bishop of Durres (the first had been Jewish). St Asti had been martyred in AD 98. For a South African, the Church in Albania seems mind-bogglingly old, and in its 2000-year history the periods of persecution have been far longer than the entire existence of Christianity in South Africa.

Some of the students had little experience of the persecution at first hand. Many of them were only 10-12 years old when the communist regime fell in 1991.

Orthodox student gathering at Tirana University
On Tuesday 8 May I spoke to students at the University of Tirana, where Fr Luke is the student chaplain. There were about 20 students, and I spoke about South Africa, and our struggle for democracy, and some of the similarities and differences I saw between South Africa and Albania. One major difference, of course, was that in Albania Christians were persecuted in the name of Atheism, whereas in South Africa Christians were persecuted in the name of "Christian civilisation". Trying to explain that to students in Albania made me aware just how crazy the South African setup was. Persecuting Christians in the name of atheism may be evil and wicked and cruel, but there is at least some logic in it.

An even more significant difference was that in South Africa we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Much has been said and written in South Africa about the shortcomings of the TRC -- that it let too many people off too lightly, that it has failed to deal with the question of restitution, or, from the other side of the political fence, that it was a witch hunt, or an example of the winners rewriting history. In the Balkans, and especially in Albania, such criticisms seem trivial and petty. If the Balkans had an institution half, or even a tenth as effective as the TRC, the situation would be enormously better than it is now.

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Student conference

Over the weekend of 19-21 May there was a student conference at Durres, attended by students from the University of Tirana, with a few from the theological seminary. I could not help comparing it with some Christian student conferences I have attended in South Africa.

The most striking thing to me was the similarities. Students are much the same the world over, and have similar concerns and responses to them. Sitting round a camp fire on a beach, singing songs, the scene could have been a Christian student conference in almost any country in the last 40 years or so. The only thing different was the songs. The Albanian songs sound rather sad, in a minor key. One evening the students put on plays and skits, and lampooned politicians and their slogans and mannerisms. Many of the students were concerned about what would happen when they graduate. Will they be able to find jobs, what kind of career do they have to look forward to?

On Saturday morning we went in a bus to a village near the town of Kavaje. In the centre of the town was a half-rebuilt mosque, with a crumbling abstract communist monument in the centre of the square, overgrown with weeds. We had to stop to ask the way, and the way led through roads where haphazard concrete block extensions to houses encroached on the street, with great piles of rubbish at the corners. It went on across a stinking ditch, all over plastic bottles and abandoned cars, that 10 years ago may have been a pleasant stream.

Once out of town, however, things improved. We got out of the bus and climbed a hill, up a path through olive trees. At the top of the hill was St Paraskevi's Church, one of the few that had survived the atheist period intact. It has frescoes showing the trial and crucifixion of Christ, and was built of stone. A Welsh teacher at the seminary, Medwyn Roberts, said it could have been in Wales. It was a kind of universal rural church. We had Matins - some 60 students, and a few local people, and then an American student who has been teaching English at the seminary, himself a recent graduate and about to go to seminary in the USA, Hector Firoglanis, spoke to the students in a setting rather like the sermon on the mount, sitting on a bank under the olive trees, with donkeys braying and grazing all around. He spoke on hope -- where could one find hope in the world?

An old Muslim woman and several children, boys of about 9 or 10, who may have been her grandchildren, came to listen too. She joined in the discussion. She said she had been born on the other side of the plateau, and came to this side when she married, but life had been hard and miserable on both sides, and in all periods, and one could only hope in God.

Another speaker at the conference was Fr Deiniol, of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales. He spoke on monasticism as radical rebellion against society's values, and how this led monks to care for those whom society rejected, the weak and the powerless.

The students discussed a couple of questions arising out of the papers that had been presented. One that provoked the most discussion was the question whether, as young Christian graduates, they should stay in Albania to develop the country, or whether they should seek to emigrate to find a better life for themselves, and how they would justify their choice on Christian grounds. The brain drain is a serious problem in Albania, and many people see no future in the country, and their only desire is to emigrate. Some responded that there was no choice in the matter - they would not have an opportunity to use their skills in Albania, and so emigration was the only way forward. Most, however, said that it was not possible to prescribe such a course of action. People must decide with the guidance of their spiritual father, and not for purely selfish motives.

On the Sunday morning we went to the Divine Liturgy at St George's Church in Durres. It was in a beautiful setting, high on a hill overlooking the town, with the same contradictory scene below - half the buildings half built, and the other half half falling down, though some are both at once. The church was full, and the singing was led by a choir of young people, some from the seminary, and others from the parish. Most of the congregation seemed young, and there were very few old people.

I had a question for the students. People say that in their town or village, there are so many Muslims and so many Orthodox -- but they never say how many atheists there are. That is somewhat surprising in a country that for over 30 years described itself as the first atheist country in the world. The cemetery at Shen Vlash, near the seminary, has Orthodox and Muslim sections, but there is no atheist section. Did no atheists die during the 33 years of the atheist regime? Did the atheists not only promise, but achieve immortality? No, they did die, but when they were buried, Orthodox Atheists and Muslim Atheists continued to be buried separately.

When the country was ruled by the Turks, many people became Muslims, but when the Turks left, they did not suddenly announce that they were Orthodox again. They continued to call themselves Muslims. But the atheists did not continue to call themselves atheists. Just as in South Africa, where it is now very hard to find anyone admitting that they supported apartheid, so much so that one wonders how it managed to last so long when no one supported it, so in Albania, it is hard to find anyone who supported the atheist regime, and so the same question must arise: how could the atheist regime have lasted so long if there were no atheists?

Father Deniol later spoke to some of the students at the university, and told them a bit about the Church in Wales. There, he said, the young people were afraid to go to church, and no one, young or old, was interested in talking about the Chrsitian faith. Religion was the last taboo, and no one talks about it. Churches are closing all over Wales, and yet there is no atheist government forcibly closing them. Perhaps it is just that people do not appreciate what they are in no danger of losing, and end up losing it just the same. The young people in Albania -- or at least the ones we met -- are eager to talk about the Christian faith, and they said that is what they talk about most among themselves. Who will be Miss Albania 2000 is not the most popular topic of conversation.

So it seems that in the 9 years since the end of the atheist regime, there is a great deal of life in the Church in Albania. Two hundred churches and 5 monasteries have been reconstructed and 75 new churches have been built; 114 graduates of the Resurrection of Christ Seminary have been ordained as priests and deacons to serve the Church. In South Africa, in contrast, in over 90 years of Orthodox presence, there is no seminary, no monastery, and nearly all the clergy are expatriates. Some South Africans have been called to the monastic life, but they have gone to join monasteries overseas. In a tenth of the time, the Church in Albania has managed to do more than ten times as much. Archbishop Anastasios speaks of two mission principles that have aided this growth:

The following weekend the seminary students went on an expedition to Korcha (Korçë). We travelled through Durres, Kavaje and Elbasan. It's less than 200 km, but the trip took 7 hours. From Elbasan the road wound through the mountains alongside a river, and was lined with maple trees, and trees with white sweet-smelling flowers that people called "acacia", but don't look like any of the acacias we know in South Africa. We crossed a high mountain pass, and descended to Lake Ohrid.

Lake Ohrid is an important site of mission history, because on the other side of the lake was the headquarters of St Clement of Ohrid, one of the earliest missionaries in the area after SS Cyril and Methodius. The other side of the lake is now FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), and in the past its territory has been claimed (and sometimes fought over) by Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Turkey and Albania. St Clement and his companions were sent as missionaries to Ohrid by King Boris of Bulgaria in the 9th century, and established institutions of learning and translated books into the Slavic languages. He is said to have been the first Bulgarian-speaking bishop. That in part, is the basis of the Bulgarian claim to the region. But it later became part of a Serbian empire, and it is inhabited by many Albanian-speaking people today.

On Saturday 27 May we went to the village of Voskopoje, up in the mountains, and that was a bit like the Zagoria villages in Greece - stone houses and cobbled streets. It is hard to believe that in the 17th century it was a trade, cultural and educational centre with 50000 inhabitants and 24 churches. It had an academy, which was almost like a university, and the first printing press in the Balkans. The Turks were jealous of its prosperity, and burnt it down in 1768. It never fully recovered, and now has only about 1000 inhabitants, who are mostly peasant farmers. Many of the churches in Voskopoje had beautiful frescoes, but most of the ones outside the buildings were damaged by graffiti from the communist era. Some of those that had survived the communist era had been damaged more recently by people from a Muslim youth camp.

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General impressions of Albania

There are three physical things that almost immediately strike foreign visitors to Albania.

The first impression is one of decay, of a crumbling infrastructure. Most factories are closed, and the factories and many public buildings have been plundered to build private houses, and sometimes shops and restaurants - the latter often illegally built in public parks and squares. There are many new buildings, but a lot of them are half finished, and look old and crumbling, even when they have been built within the last 8 years. There is rubbish everywhere, on the streets, in courtyards, in rivers and streams. Only in Korcha did the rubbish collection system seem to work. Municipal rubbish collection services may seem a very bourgeois preoccupation, but, as one song put it, "you don't miss your water till your well runs dry".

A new church rises to replace one demolished by the atheist regime of Enver Hoxha, while Hoxha's military bunkers decay
The second impression is of the hemispherical concrete bunkers that litter the countryside. In South Africa we had a war psychosis in the P.W. Botha/Magnus Malan era, but it didn't have quite such an effect on the physical appearance of the landscape (unless one counts the military roads that were built).

The third impression that foreign visitors receive is the dolls and stuffed toys placed on many of the half-finished buildings. There are teddy bears, stuffed rabbits, pandas, and I also saw a Mickey Mouse and a Pink Panther. A visiting Albanian-American student remarked that it struck him as horribly sinister, like something out of a Stephen King novel. These things are called "dordolec" (pronounced "dordolets") and are apparently to ward off the evil eye. There have been quite a number of anthropological studies of the evil eye, but none of those I have seen mention this custom, and I was curious to know whether it, like religion, had been suppressed by the Hoxha regime, and if there is anything similar in neighbouring countries.

But for me the lasting impression is the life and vitality in the church, and the rapid and vigorous growth that has taken place in the last nine years, and the evident enthusiasm, joy and dedication among the young people, at least as represented by the students we met at the seminary and the university.

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Simonos Petra monastery, Mount Athos
One of the teachers at the seminary was Fr Ephrem, a monk from the Simonos Petra monastery on the Holy Mountain. He arranged with his brother at the monastery, Fr Theologos, for me to spend a few days there before returning to South Africa.

I was there for the Leavetaking of Pascha, and Ascension Day (8 June). The vigil for the feast of the Ascension lasted over five hours, and at various points in the service the chandeliers were set swinging. One of the monks told me that the movement made the candles burn more brightly, and it symbolised the dance of the angels.

Fr Ephrem had said that monasticism is the lungs of the Church, an image that helped me a great deal in understanding the role of monasticism in mission, which I was trying to teach at the seminary. The world is in the power of the evil one (I Jn 5:19) and its atmosphere is polluted, not just physically, but spiritually. Those in monasteries seek to breathe the pure air of heaven, and it is this that enables the Church to continue in its mission. When I said this to Fr Ephrem, he warned me not to have a romantic view of monasteries. It was too easy for a monk to lose nipsis (watchfulness), and said that more people go to hell from monasteries than anywhere else. Fr Theologos also warned against triumphalism. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Orthodoxy will not flourish in southern Africa until there are monasteries here.

The visit to the Holy Mountain was a fitting end to my time away. For Orthodox Christians living in countries where there are no monasteries, even a short time spent in a monastery is refreshing. But, as William Golding says in one of his novels, it is a bit like the taste of potatoes - it cannot be described, it must be experienced.

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Created: 15 July 2000
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