The Atheistic Communist Regime came closest to exterminating religion of any sort in Albania, more so than in any other communist state.
The National Museum in the Capital, Tirana, bore dark witness to the gruesome terror: photos of teenagers executed trying to escape, displays of torture devices (such as triple-chained 18-inch whips), placards naming countless scores of those put to death due to their religion. There are special sections each for Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy/leaders who were killed, without trial, for their foolish crime: belief in God.
In striking contrast to this portion of the museum were two particular exhibitions: One was devoted to Mother Teresa, a native Albanian. Photos, newer and older, of her selfless devotion to serving the indescribably poor were like banners of joy and kindness.
The other, guarded by beautiful wrought-iron gates, is a collection of Christian icons (painted panels of Jesus Christ and the saints) dating as far back as the 16th century. The icons bear witness to a glorious Orthodox Christian presence and history in Albania, the resurrection of which I came to witness.
Archbishop Anastasios (whose name means "resurrection"), has served as the archpastor of the Albanian Orthodox Church for 22 years. In the last decade or so, he has been the rebuilder of a Christian, specifically Orthodox Christian, culture.
During his oversight, he has built clinics, schools, monasteries and churches; he has established seminaries and youth programs. He is restoring the arts. His basic goal seems to be to give to Albania what Western European Christians gave to Western Europe: a life where faith informs and undergirds every aspect of life.
On June 2, the Holy Resurrection Cathedral was consecrated: blessed, set apart for sacred use. The marvelous and ancient rite has several parts. First, the bones of a Christian martyr are processed three times around the cathedral. They are then buried into the altar, which is washed with water and wine, anointed with oil and then "dressed" with beautiful fabrics. Essentially, it is the baptism of an altar.
Finally, a brush on a long pole is taken, and the walls of the church are blessed with sign of the cross. The service was served by more than 50 delegations of bishops, priests, deacons and servers from around the world.
The leaders from some of the most ancient Christian centers took part, led by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (who, the previous Sunday, met with Pope Francis in Jerusalem).
Serving also were Patriarch of Jerusalem (who was the successor to James, brother of Jesus from Acts 15 in the Bible), the Patriarchs of Romania, Poland, Serbia, and bishops from Russia, Greece, Antioch, Georgia, Uganda, Egypt and the United States. I traveled with Archbishop Nikon from Boston.
Thousands and thousands of Christians, monks and nuns, visiting dignitaries, including the president of Albania, and a host of non-Christian leaders filled the massive cathedral.
After the service, a formal lunch was served for the visiting delegations, during which the nation's president, along with the main leaders, gave thanks and congratulations to Archbishop Anastasios and the Albanian Orthodox Church for their vital contributions to the life and culture of the country.
In the "basement" of the cathedral is a 300-seat professional theater. We were treated to a two-hour program of talent from across the country: orchestras, choirs, folk- dancers, and others. There was a seamless beauty connecting the colorful liturgy in a church adorned with marble, gold leaf and tile mosaics to the display of local music and art.
From Tirana, I flew to Istanbul, which Orthodox Christians have called Constantinople since the 4th-century founding of the city as the capital of the Byzantine Empire by the Emperor Constantine. I found Instanbul to be a most remarkable city, the history of which gave me, as an Orthodox Christian, the most challenging set of mixed feelings.
On the one hand, Constantinople was the glory (capital G) of the Christian Empire, the center of faith, beauty and grandeur. In the 4th century, the Second Ecumenical council met there at Hagia Irene Church and completed in 381 A.D. the Nicene Creed, which has served since that time as the definitive "statement of faith" of Christianity.
In the next century, the monumental Hagia Sophia Church was completed. It is the largest, most complex and stunning church in Christendom. This mother-church of Christianity, with her glorious rites and mind-bogglingly beautiful architecture, was responsible for the conversion of Rus (the Slavic peoples of Ukraine and Russia) to Christianity in 988 A.D. In that year, emissaries of Prince Vladimir returned from their imperial mission: to find true religion. Their statement is still quoted today: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely here is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their worship surpasses that of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty."
Hagia Sophia was only surpassed in size many centuries later by the Catholic Cathedral in Seville, Spain.
Grounding all of this is the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the seat of the chief among equals of all the world's Orthodox Christian Bishops. Today, Patriarch Bartholomew, who consecrated the Tirana Cathedral, is the successor to this central office and See. He, along with the other Orthodox bishops around the world, are responsible for maintaining the living link to early Christianity.
The second set of emotions is grounded in 1204, 1453, and the modern-day Turkish Republic. In 1204, Catholic Crusaders ransacked the holy sites of Constantinople, and in 1453, the Muslims took the city and converted the great churches into mosques, covering the frescoes and tile mosaics with plaster, removing the crosses and replacing them with crescent moons.
Hagia Sophia today is a museum, neither fish nor fowl; Hagia Irene, a public concert hall, thanks to its unmatched acoustics. And while these two are now museums, thanks to a secularizing force in Turkey, there is a movement to restore Hagia Sophia to a mosque, a fate from which other beautiful churches did not escape.
Could a born-and-bred Charlestonian imagine St. Philips with a minaret? Or the five-times-per-day loudspeaker call of the Muezzin from Grace Church? And all this barely to mention the Ecumenical Patriarch who, with all other Christian clergy, is forbidden by law to dress recognizably as a minister in public.
In fact, at the hotel in the historic Sultanahmet section of Istanbul, a stone's throw from Hagia Sophia, the kind manager at the desk told me that she had never seen a priest before, as I was wearing my cassock.
While I should not have been surprised, the amount of capitalization on the specifically Christian history of Istanbul was stark. Christianity, while allowed behind a closed door as a faith, was absolutely for sale on every street corner.
In all, I shall never forget this experience. This was my first visit to two predominantly Muslim cultures, with vastly different current relationships with Christianity: one of tolerance that has led to a flourishing; the other of some more evasive description, a secularization which has led to seclusion and marginalization.
Fr. John Parker is pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant. He can be reached at frjohn@ ocacharleston.org or 881-5010.
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, dates to 537 A.D. and is a former Greek Orthodox church, later an imperial mosque and now a museum.×