Archbishop Anastasios of Albania is seen during a visit to Athens in 2015 in this file photo. Anastasios is the spiritual leader of the Orthodox community of Albania, representing 25% of the country’s population. [Orestis Panagiotou/ANA-MPA]
Any conversation with Archbishop Anastasios of Albania is interesting and useful. The titanic efforts of the past 30 years to bring the Orthodox Church of Albania back from the abyss in challenging conditions made even harder by the (continued) fluctuations in the Greek-Albanian relationship have made him a wiser man than he was when he first set foot in the Balkan country, full of experience from his years as a missionary in East Africa.
Archbishop Anastasios is absolutely aware of where he is and what his role requires of him, yet he has never hesitated to raise his voice for the greater good in the face of adversity. At every level. I remember him intervening at several extremely difficult moments in Greek-Albanian relations to reconcile and assuage the nationalist passions on both sides.
He stepped forward to open church doors in Durres to people displaced by the devastating earthquake of 2019 and more recently helped thousands of Albanians and Greek Albanians who had become trapped at the Kakavia border crossing in deplorable conditions as a result of restrictions on travel due to the coronavirus. For years he has strived to help members of the Greek minority in Albania remain in their ancestral homes and represents a strong link between the two countries. Anastasios is not a spokesperson for Greek interests in Albania, as some of our foolish ultranationalists like to say he is. He is the religious leader of the country’s 25% Christian Orthodox population – Albanian or otherwise – and a leading proponent of Albania’s positive image on the international stage.
Nevertheless, the blood flowing in his veins is Greek and this makes him especially sensitive to the plight of helpless elderly Greek Albanians struggling to survive the trials of the pandemic in the remote mountain villages of Albania’s south, without the support of the younger generation that has immigrated. With pensions of just 60 euros, they have to fork out 200 euros or more to be tested for the coronavirus at Albanian health centers with shaky reputations if they want to travel to Greece and seek medical treatment in Ioannina, Preveza, Kastoria or other cities near the border.
Archbishop Anastasios confessed to me that he metaphorically knocked on several doors in Athens asking for a temporary testing center to be set up on the Albanian-Greek border in order to help these elderly residents get the treatment they need, but “none has opened so far.” So, let’s just stop pretending: We are the ones emptying the villages of the Greek minority in Albania.