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At Easter, Albanians recall ‘dark’ communist past

- - Friday, April 6, 2012

ELBASAN, Albania — On Easter in the small mountain village of Selta in central Albania, the Orthodox Christian villagers will don their Sunday best.

They will pick a goat to slaughter, bake traditional Easter bread and make the ultrathin sugar-soaked Baklava pastry for their traditional feast, never complete without glasses of homemade brandy.

As locals welcome Easter, they say they can't help remembering the country's "dark" communist past where religion was banned and even an Easter egg could land you in jail.

"It was a depressing time," said Anastas Karaj, 60, a shepherd from the village.

"Everything religious was banned, and you could only celebrate secretly at home. If you were caught, you could end up in prison or labor camp. And if government informants found pieces of painted eggshells on your compost heap, they could take you away."

In 1967, dictator Enver Hoxha proudly proclaimed "Europe's first atheist country." During his 41-year Stalinist regime, more than 1,600 churches and monasteries were destroyed. Priests were kidnapped and sometimes murdered.

After he died in 1985, there was a slow revival of religion that included the construction of churches and mosques, said Armanda Kodra-Hysa, an ethnographer at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology at the Albanian Academy of Sciences in Tirana.

"In the early 1990s, there was a true missionary wave of Baptists, Mormons, Evangelicals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists," she said.

"Religion was generally booming, even among the established religions [of Islam and the Orthodox and Catholic churches]. There was almost a competition over which religion was able to mobilize the majority of believers."

Still, in Albania, which is officially 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian, religion has a growing significance only to a point, analysts say.

"A lot of people in Albania claim a religious affiliation or origin, but this often has limited role in the everyday life of the majority," said Dimitris Dalakoglou, an anthropologist at Britain's University of Sussex who specializes in the Albania.

Ms. Kodra-Hysa added that practicing believers are still a minority.

"It was especially the young who felt magically drawn to religion from atheism," she said.

The Orthodox Church of Albania has no money for the small village churches, leaving the upkeep to volunteers.

Residents of Selta recently put a roof on the village's tiny church, which lacked one for two decades. The church has no electricity, but villagers glue candles into cracks in the walls to provide light.

The church is lovingly used. During Easter services, women clad in white headscarves sing hymns during services, even if many don't know the words.

Mr. Karaj said Easter is a time to celebrate and his close friend Arif Hoxhollari from the neighboring Muslim village will come over to dine, to drink and sing.

The two are inseparable, working the summer pastures together as shepherds.

Although Mr. Karaj is Christian and Mr. Hoxhollari is Muslim, they say their religious differences do not matter. They visit each other on religious holidays and weddings.

"Luckily, in the whole country, the relations between religions, between Muslims and Christians are fairly peaceful and people understand and respect each others' faith," said Mr. Karaj. "I have married my two daughters to Muslims. It doesn't bother us."

Mr. Hoxhollari added, "In the olden days, we only used to marry among our own kind: They didn't get our women, and they didn't give us theirs. Never!

"But for the last 20 years, we've had good relations. We slaughter our animals for our feasts. We come together and celebrate as a family. This is also a kind of liberation."

Just before Easter, Mr. Karaj strolled through his village. In the distance, the rattling clang of the old, broken village bell rang out.

In communist times, even the bell was misused, ringing early in the morning as a collective wake-up call to summon villagers to work.

On Sunday, it will ring to bring villagers together to celebrate the rebirth of Christ.