A Christmas Gift to the Orthodox Community in Albania
By Ilda Mara*
Albanian Daily News
Published December 25, 2017
On this Christmas Eve the President of Albania Ilir Meta granted the Albanian citizenship to His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios head of the Albanian Orthodox Autocephalous Church (AOAC).

He is a missionary of love and compassion! At his appointment on 1991 as Patriarchal Exarch in Albania with mission to resurrect the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania fully destroyed by the communist regime, he was guided by the love for God, and the will to spread his message even in a spiritually devastated land.

It was a heavy task to rebuild from scratch the 1967 dissolved and totally destroyed Church, left with no hope for homegrown renewal. Neither within the country, nor in any other country of the globe, was there an Albanian bishop, clergy or layman ready to assume the burden of the restoration of the Albanian church. Only 12 priests and three deacons had survived the persecution, and most of them were old or ill.

The initiative to restore the Church of Albania was taken by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which on January 1991, nominated Bishop Anastasios of Androusa as Patriarchal Exarch to the Albanian sister church. At that time, the newly appointed Exarch was a professor of the History of Religions at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and was internationally known for over 30 years as a specialist on the subject of foreign missionary work; also Bishop of Androussa and General Director of the Apostolic Service of the Church of Greece as well as Viceroy of the Holy Metropolis of Irinopoli in East Africa. Over the years, from 1984 to 1991, he was simultaneously Chairman of the Committee and of the Assembly of World Missions and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches.

His first step, after his arrival, was the creation of a basic ecclesial structure for the governance of the local Church. Upon his arrival in Albania, the Patriarchal Exarch Anastasios tried to revive the Orthodox faith through visits to towns and villages, preaching and celebrating the Divine Liturgy. His primary effort was to find fitting persons in Albania to be ordained as clergy, and gradually to assume the responsibility of bishop and even one day the one of archbishop. Unfortunately, this turned out that will required a long time. In May 1992 while the Patriarchal Exarch was preparing to return to his university duties, the clergy and the people of Albania asked him to stay and undertake the restoration of the Church, which remained a pending issue. For the first time after the persecution, a representative body of the Church of Albania (appointed by the General Church Council and composed of Ikonom Father Kozma Qirio, Father Gaqo Petri, Father Jani Trebicka and the theologian Dhimiter Beduli), visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople in 1992 and requested the election of the then Patriarchal Exarch as Primate of the Church of Albania. On June 24th, 1992, upon the proposal of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate elected as Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, by unanimous vote, Mr. Anastasios Yannoulatos, who had been the Patriarchal Exarch.

The President of Albania, Mr. Sali Berisha, stated to the elected Archbishop (on June 30th, 1992), and to the three representatives of the Patriarchate who visited the country shortly afterwards, that he accepted Anastasios as Archbishop of AOAC. The new Archbishop was enthroned in the cathedral of Tirana (on August 2nd,1992), in the presence of all the clergy and lay representatives of the Dioceses of Albania.

A quarter of a century dedicated to Albania

Since 1992, the Archbishop Anastasios dedicated his life to Albania and to the renewal of faith and the Orthodox Church of Albania. Important steps were undertaken in order to structure the AOAC, the Formation of the Holy Synod, in essence, the life of the Church and its management was going to be regulated by the Apostolic and Synodical Canons.

His mission was first a pastoral one! The first step, in a devastated country, where the numerous bunkers were reminiscent of the "place of skull," was the greeting "Christ is Risen!" and the spontaneous response of the faithful "Truly He is Risen!"

During the Communist persecution, the vast majority of Orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed. After the fall of the communism, in 1991, the first Divine Liturgies were celebrated under the shade of large trees, or open areas in many cities, or in the ruins of the churches.

His first priority was to declare the message of Christ and the glorifying experience of faith within the Church's liturgical life, the second was to organize the institution of the Church throughout the entire country. About 460 Orthodox churches were built in towns and villages. Dioceses were reestablished: the Archdiocese of Tirana and Durres, the Metropolis of Berat, Gjirokastra Korca, and two new Metropolises founded in April 2016: the Metropolis of Apollonia and Fier, and Elbasan.

Knowledge is power; education is the premise of progress... These notions were guidelines for the Archbishop Anastasios during his work in the field of education, he created the nest of the Church to educate the new generation of clergy of Albanian citizenship. In 1997, the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy was opened in the New Monastery of Saint Vlash (Blasius) in Durres. At present, 150 active clergy were educated and ordained. In order to create a foundation for the future clergy, in September 1998 in Gjirokastra, the Holy Cross boarding Ecclesiastical High School was founded and, by September 2007, a second Ecclesiastical Lyceum started to operate in Sukth in Durres. In Gjirokastra, Bularat, there is the "The Unwithering Rose" Girls' Dormitory which was opened in 2000 and in which female high school students reside and are educated. For the first time, in October 2012, the Byzantine Music School began to operate, on the Tabor Center, near Mount Dajti.

150 domed churches such as, the cathedral churches of Korca, Fieri, Berati and Gjirokastra, Durres, Pogradec, Shkodra, Saranda, etc. The most symbolic of these Cathedrals is the Resurrection of Christ Cathedral in the center of Tirana and the Synodical Cultural Center.
Sixty-three cultural monuments were restored, including the Monastery of Holy Theotokos in Ardenicë, of Saint John the Vladimir in Elbasan, of Saint Kosmas of Aitolia in Kolkondas, of Saint George in Çukë, of Saint Demetrius in Qeparo; the church of the Archangels in Gjirokastra, the church of the Dormition of Theotokos in Leusa, Permet, etc. One hundred-sixty more churches were either completely rebuilt or restored, including the church of the Annunciation in Tirana, and the churches of Kavaja, Lushnja, Elbasan and Durres. Also, over 70 buildings were built or bought and repaired, including the building of the Theological Academy, the Monastery of St. Vlash, the Archdiocesan building, etc.

The Orthodox Church of Albania has actively participated in the inter-church arena and has been present in events of the world Orthodox Churches at all levels. It has been recognized by and has become a regular member of the European Churches Conference, a member of the World Council of Churches, and "Religions for Peace" Global Interfaith Organization (Archbishop Anastasios has been vice president of the first organization (from 2003 to 2009), President of the second one (from 2006 to 2013) and Emeritus President of the third one (from 2009 onwards). The role of the Orthodox Church of Albania in the promotion of the dialogue of religions in Albania with other three religions has been quite important.

The Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, under the leadership of Archbishop Anastasios has accomplished a lot, as abovementioned, but the most important contribution is the strengthens of the faith, love and hope of the Orthodox people and of the whole Albanian society. The citizenship granted by decree by the President of Albania was a delayed act of recognition to this great personality.

*advisor to the French quarterly Politique Internationale

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