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Pilgrimage to Albania


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The American Spectator:

Alfred S. Regnery
September 2010

"Albania? Why, of all the places to go in the world, would you choose to go to Albania?" That was the usual response from friends when they learned I'd just come back from this forgotten corner of Europe. I have found, I told them, that the most interesting places to visit are usually the ones furthest from the beaten path, and that was certainly the case this time.


What is now Albania was part of the Roman Empire until it was conquered by the Slavs, later by the Bulgarians, and ultimately by the Ottoman Empire. The Turks kicked it around for centuries until the First Balkan War, in 1912, and with the dissolution of Turkish rule Albanians found themselves being invaded by Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks, all of whom wanted pieces of it, until a truce, in 1913, supervised by the Great Powers, created an independent country. But that only lasted for a year or so until the Serbs again invaded, followed closely by troops from the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire, who were actually welcomed, in pursuit of the Serbs. By the end of World War I and the demise of Austria-Hungary, Albania was again thrown into turmoil, and in 1939 Mussolini's forces invaded, soon followed by the Greeks bent on defeating the Italians. The collapse of Italy in 1943 brought in the Germans, and in 1945 the place descended into Hell with the emergence of Enver Hoxha, a young resistance fighter turned Communist who eventually became head of state. The role model of Kim Jong Il, he is described by Albanians as "Stalin on steroids."


First, you fly into Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana, the capital. The famous nun after whom the international airport is named was an Albanian and is now a national hero and well on the path to sainthood. It's an amazing switch for a place that not only banned religion (the Albanian Constitution of 1976 unabashedly declared, "The State recognizes no religion, and supports and carries out atheistic propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialistic world outlook in people"), but shot priests, nuns, monks, and Muslim clerics; bulldozed churches or, if they were venerable enough, turned them into warehouses and stables after painting out every fresco, portrait, and vestige of religious adornment; and imprisoned anybody who even breathed a word about any sort of religion.

Soon after we arrived we drove to a small Catholic church perched high on a mountain side under a huge white cross, probably about 80-100 feet high, visible from 20 miles away. The church would host, the next week, a pilgrimage of Christians who would walk from the valley, about five miles up a steep, hot, and winding road to some 2,000 feet, to spend the day in prayer.

"How many people do you expect?" I asked the priest who had organized it. "Last year we had about 250,000," he responded. "We expect about twice that many this year." And, in fact, it is estimated that about half a million people walked up the 2,000 foot mountain -- not bad, in country of fewer than four million -- people who would have gone to prison until 20 years ago for even mentioning religion.

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