NEWS

After 13 years, still no Albanian citizenship granted

It has been 13 years since you arrived in Albania and 12 years since your enthronement. What have been the greatest difficulties you have had to face? First of all, I was a foreigner. I did not speak any Albanian. At an advanced age (I was 62 when I arrived) I had to learn a difficult language. The Orthodox flock in Albania is not ethnically homogenous; there are Albanians, Greeks, Slavophones, Vlachophones and others, who have been subjected to several influences from abroad. Generally there was a pervading sense of suspicion and hostility. In the early 1990s, relations between Albania and Greece were strained. Many of the powers that be could not believe in the sincerity of my intentions and were concerned that an institution such as the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, which is the largest Christian community in the country, was headed by a Greek. Many articles were written attacking me and, as you know, in 1994 a Draft Constitution was drawn up which would result in the removal of a foreign archbishop from the country. These past 13 years, Albania has been undergoing a sociopolitical upheaval, with repeated uprisings, economic recession, tense relations with neighboring countries, insecurity, its official social institutions in crisis. We have faced terrible obstacles to our demands for the return of places of worship, monasteries, churches and other property necessary for the survival of our Church. Many of our efforts have required 10 times, sometimes 100 times, the amount of input they would have under normal circumstances. When I undertook to re-establish our Church here, no guarantee of even the smallest budget was given, or a group of associates. I had to do everything myself. You can imagine the worry, the disappointment, the uncertainty and the deadlocks I encountered. Then there were the difficult living conditions, such as a lack of heating, electricity and water, and health problems. Deprivations multiplied on tours of the country. The roads, particularly in the early years, were terrible; every meter there were three or four potholes. In mountain areas, it took three hours to drive 20 kilometers. Don’t forget that the struggle was not restricted to a few months or two or three years. It has been 13 years of struggling up a very rocky and slippery slope. After so many years of unquestioned service to the country and despite two official applications, I have not yet been given Albanian citizenship, something which has many repercussions. Have you ever thought you might not manage, that you might resign? Many people, even friends, told me that in this spiritual desert nothing sown would ever be reaped, that there was no hope of anything serious happening and that the best thing to do was to leave. But I had not come to Albania of my own personal volition. I accepted with faith a mission assigned to me by the Church, in this case the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I had already prepared myself spiritually during my missionary work in Africa and the inter-Christian theological and social quest. Naturally, a positive outcome was never certain. What was important, however, was not success in itself, but the fulfillment of a duty. The rest I left in God’s hands, in faith. Did you ever think of resigning? Not exactly. Only at one time, in 1998, when various groups began to circulate false and scurrilous rumors about me, which influenced even the Patriarchate. That was when, at one point, I thought of facilitating matters by resigning. However, after analyzing the conditions, and seeing the dead end that such a move would lead to, I soon overcame these thoughts and took other initiatives. That is, to speak personally and sincerely with Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios. Together, in a spirit of brotherly understanding and cooperation, we determined the appropriate action. Both inside and outside Albania, there have been those who have either undermined or helped you. Naturally. The first category includes those, both officials and otherwise, who had their own perceptions about relations between Albania and Greece, or else they simply didn’t want me to succeed. But I do not want to open old wounds here. Those who have helped me have been far more numerous. Above all, my excellent colleagues, both from Albania and Greece as well as the US, who have stood by me in the face of difficulties and deprivations with devotion and faith. There have never been more than 20 non-Albanians among us. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has always provided moral support. Thousands of people from Greece have provided funds or volunteer work, coordinated by the Inter-Orthodox Center. A large sector of the media, particularly Kathimerini, has also supported us. It is with great gratitude that we think of the officials, the ordinary people, the organizations and private individuals who have helped us, but the list is too long to go into in an interview. Have you ever feared for your life? I recall that in December 1994, at the time of the referendum which could have forced you to leave Albania, things had become very tense. When I decided to remain in Albania, I knew that at every moment my life was in danger. In fact some friends offered to give me a bullet-proof car or talked about a bodyguard. I thanked them and explained that this would be a serious mistake. An archbishop only needs God’s protection. From the moment you accept the risk, you are at peace and you are free. From the day I was enthroned in 1992, there has been a barrage of press reports against me because of my Greek origin, a barrage that peaked in 1994. Things did not stop there. Every now and then there were rumors of planned car accidents and so on. But that did not stop us from going all over Albania, to towns and villages, valleys and mountains. What have relations between the Orthodox and the Catholics and Muslims of Albania been like? In the first few months after I arrived here I tried to cultivate warm relations with the heads of the various religious communities. I believe that personal relations between those in positions of leadership help create an open climate. Of course, all these years have not been without problems. Certain extremist elements committed impermissible acts (such as the destruction of frescoes in Orthodox churches, even setting churches on fire), trying to create tension. We ensured that this did not happen. We cooperated during critical times to relieve the suffering of the people and everyone knows that religious communities in Albania (the Muslims, Sunnis or Bektashis, the Christian Orthodox or Roman Catholics) have not only supported peaceful coexistence but have made joint efforts, wherever possible, to cooperate in a positive manner. What is the current climate in Albania? Is there tolerance for religious differences or do you feel an attempt is being made to impose «one God» by excluding the Orthodox or the Catholics? Albania’s Constitution emphasizes that the country is a «people’s state.» There is religious freedom, particularly in the official texts and public government statements. At the local government level, however, this religious freedom and equality is being undermined. Great powers have been given to local councils in various towns. When the majority of the members of these councils belong to one or another religious community, often major injustices are committed against the Orthodox (such as in Premeti, where an attempt is being made to turn the main Orthodox church into a «cultural center»). Of course the Orthodox are strongly resisting this move. Also, various committees have been set up within the system of property restitution, where further arbitrary and discriminatory actions have occurred. But I do not think there is a desire to impose one religion. A considerable sector of the Albanian population does not profess to belong to any faith. The Constitution also permits one to convert to another faith. Generally, in Albania there is a desire to accept different religions.