The national holiday of the Albanian nation – Flag Day – falls on November 28 each year. It commemorates the 1912 raising of the red banner, with the black double-headed eagle of Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu, by Ismail Qemali in the city of Vlora, and the simultaneous declaration of Albanian independence.
This year Flag Day follows the visit to Albania of Pope Francis, head of the global Roman Catholic community. In honoring Flag Day, I am also concerned to support the beatification and canonization of Albania’s Catholic martyrs. Catholic clergy massacred by the atheist regime of Enver Hoxha were leading patriots and educators, who had contributed profoundly to Albanian society and culture. Their deaths were unjust and brutal.
This topic provokes a range of reflections. I am an American Muslim from a non-religious family background. Why, one might ask, should I care about the Albanian Catholic martyrs and their path to sainthood?
The answer is complex. First, I admire the tradition of multi-religious unity that has kept Albanians together through many trials – whether they are Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims, or members of the Bektashi sect of Shia Islam. The same religious non-discrimination motivated Albanians during the second world war to extend their physical protection to local Jews, along with Jewish refugees from the rest of German-occupied Europe.
Second, as those who have read my writings will know, my mentor in Albanian studies was the exiled Catholic writer Gjon Sinishta [1930-1995], who founded the Albanian Catholic Bulletin as an annual review of Catholic culture and general religious affairs. I was lucky to work with Gjon on the Bulletin, which mainly featured texts in English, from 1991 to 1994, when its last issue appeared. The work of the Bulletin is continued at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, by the Daniel Dajani, S.J. Albanian Catholic Institute.
Gjon related to me the annals of the Catholic martyrs, which were also collected in his 1976 volume The Fulfilled Promise: A Documentary Account of Religious Persecution in Albania. Although it has yet to be reprinted – a worthy project indeed! – The Fulfilled Promise is a uniquely-valuable element in the bibliography of Communist persecution of religion.
Gjon exemplified the principle that religious differences among Albanians were irrelevant. He was close to Fr. Arthur Liolin of the Albanian Orthodox Christian church in America; he knew Baba Rexheb Beqiri [1901-95], who founded the exiled teqe of the Bektashi Sufis in Taylor, Michigan, and in the Albanian Catholic Bulletin Gjon featured scholarship on the Sunni and Bektashi literary traditions among Albanians. Gjon entrusted to me the copy of The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism, a 1984 book printed in Italy in English, that Baba Rexheb sent to him.
Indeed, Gjon’s open-minded approach to Albanian religious life was such that it induced me, at one point, to embarrass myself by referring in print to Arshi Pipa [1920-97], a defender of the Shkodran regional cultural tradition and of the Gheg dialect, as a Catholic. Pipa, like his brother Muzaffer, was a Sunni Muslim, but Arshi Pipa was educated, as was Gjon Sinishta, at the Jesuit Saverianum (College of St. Francis Xavier) in Shkodra. In 1944-45, when the Catholic intellectuals of Shkodra were subjected to a genocidal campaign of liquidation, Muzaffer Pipa stood up as their defense attorney in court. He was executed by the Communists for his effort.
Attendance of Muslim intellectuals at the Savierianum was not unique to Arshi Pipa. The founder of modern Albanian prose, Faik Beg Konica [1876-1942], was a graduate of the Jesuit school. Among Catholic authors, the outstanding poet Martin Camaj [1925-92], whom I grew to know through Gjon and who likewise influenced me immensely, was schooled at the Saverianum. In Britain and the U.S. today conscientious Muslim parents often seek to enroll their children in Catholic schools because they know their quality is assured; Albania led the way in this respect.
During the visit of Pope Francis to Albania, I was moved particularly by two images that appeared in Illyria and other Albanian media. One, published in Illyria on September 26-October 2, 2014, depicted Orthodox, Sunni, and Bektashi clergy side by side, awaiting the arrival of the Catholic pontiff. The other, published a week before, in the issue of Illyria for September 19-25, was mentioned by my friend and colleague Raymond Frost, who administers the Daniel Dajani, S.J. Albanian Catholic Institute at the University of San Francisco. That photograph showed the main boulevards of Tirana filled with images of 40 Catholic martyrs nominated for sainthood by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
“It was wonderful to see in public the martyrs Gjon taught us about,” Ray said to me.
Hung as banners over the streets, we viewed the faces of Fr. Anton Harapi [1886-1946], a Franciscan and editor of the journal Hylli I Dritës (The Star of Light), who wrote for other important Albanian-language media. Fr. Harapi had worked closely with the Albanian versifier Fr. Gjergj Fishta [1871-1940], author of Lahuta e Malcís (The Mountain Lute) and one of two Albanian national poets with the Bektashi Naim Frashëri [1846-1900]. Other martyrs who were visible above the crowd in Tirana included the great poets Archbishop Vinçenc Prennushi [1885-1949], who additionally worked on Hylli I Dritës, and Dom Lazër Shantoja [1892-1945]. Their memorial reunited them with Fr. Ded Maçaj [1921-46], and Fr. Gjon Fausti [1889-1946], a dedicated Jesuit priest.
And there were more… It is shocking to recall that the Catholic martyrs of Albania included the author of the first Albanian novel, Ndoc Nikaj [1864-1951], and bishop Luigj Bumci [1872-1945], leader of the Albanian national delegation to the Paris peace talks after the first world war. Gjon Sinishta remembered always the calvary of Ndoc Nikaj, and referred to it often in speaking with me.
Gjon repeated many times the words of Pope John Paul II: “never forget the martyrdom of Albania!” The Albanian Catholic Church has revived in the aftermath of Communism’s fall, with new churches and renovated institutions serving Catholic believers wherever they gather. But the martyrs yet merit attention.
Pope Francis, in his Tirana speech to political leaders and diplomats, referred to “this noble land of Albania, a land of heroes who sacrificed their lives for the independence of the nation, and a land of martyrs, who witnessed to their faith in difficult times of persecution.” He said further, “There is a rather beautiful characteristic of Albania, one which is given great care and attention, and which gives me great joy: I am referring to the peaceful coexistence and collaboration that exists among followers of different religions. The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country. This is especially the case in these times where an authentic religious spirit is being perverted and where religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized.” Of course, one could not help thinking of the persecution of Christians and other minorities by the spurious “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq.
But the heart of the papal message expressed praise for the martyrs of faith. Pope Francis declared, in his homily to the people, on September 21, “Those who were afraid of the truth did everything they could to banish God from the hearts of men and women… Recalling the decades of atrocious suffering and harsh persecutions against Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, we can say that Albania was a land of martyrs: many bishops, priests, men and women religious, laity, and clerics and ministers of other religions paid for their fidelity with their lives. Demonstrations of great courage and constancy in the profession of the faith are not lacking.”
Pope Francis admitted on his return flight from Albania that after two months’ review of the history of Communist religious persecution in Albania, he “had not realized that this people had suffered so, so much. It was a surprise for me,” he averred.
The “cause” for beatification of the Albanian Catholic martyrs – the first step toward canonization, or full sainthood – is, we are told, already underway. The process is long. As a global symbol of charity, Mother Teresa, who was beatified in 2003, may be canonized before the martyrs. And the Albanian nation possesses other martyrs, murdered by Slavs and worthy of inclusion in the “cause.” Not the least of them are two Kosovars: Fr. Luigj Paliq [1879-1913], slain for refusing conversion to Orthodoxy, and Fr. Shtjefën Gjeçovi-Kryeziu [1874-1929], who edited the traditional Kanun of Lek Dukagjini as a modern, printed book. Fr. Paliq was among the 40 martyrs memorialized by a banner, in Tirana during the sojourn of Pope Francis.
Late in 2013, eight months after the assumption of his pontifical duties, Pope Francis beatified 522 martyrs killed out of anticlerical rage during the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. Some political elements criticized the Spanish beatifications; nonetheless, they are a positive step for reconciliation of hostile camps in that country. While the Spanish Catholic martyrs were victims of a leftist revolutionary upsurge, we should not forget that Stalinist Communism also claimed victims among independent Marxists.
In Spain, the Catalan literary critic Andreu Nin [1892-1937] was tortured to death by Soviet agents; his place of burial is still unknown. Nin, although condemned by some Catholics for his radicalism, had served as minister of justice in Catalonia during the Spanish conflict and attempted to end waves of extrajudicial violence such as struck down the Catholic martyrs. Similarly, the dissident Albanian Communist Llazër (Zai) Fundo [1899-1944] was beaten to death by Hoxha’s agents.
Fr. Harapi and other Albanian Catholic leaders were political reformers. They supported the brief 1924 constitutional government of the Orthodox ecclesiastic Theofan Stilian Noli [1882-1965]. The Catholic intellectuals were adherents of Luigj Gurakuqi [1879-1925] and his Christian Democratic Party, which, aside from the Slovene People’s Party, was the only Catholic political force of that kind in southeast Europe. It is fascinating to consider that Noli’s short-lived administration brought together patriots as diverse as Harapi and Zai Fundo – both destined for murder by Hoxha. All were forward-looking, if each in a different way.
The Albanian Catholic martyrs died for the freedom of all religious believers in their native lands, whether Christian or Muslim – and, to emphasize, some made efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust. They belong to all believers and civic activists everywhere. Their “cause” should be supported in all possible ways, as an expression of Albanian patriotism appropriate for Flag Day, every year.
Finally, on Albanian Flag Day, I think again of Gjon Sinishta, who guided me through periods of personal distress, and introduced me to the unique universe of “Albanianism” – the true religion of Albanians, in the words of the Catholic intellectual and Ottoman official Pashko Vasa [1825-92]. I miss Gjon every day, and every day I pray for him – as a Muslim, reciting Fatiha, the opening chapter of Qur’an that serves as an Islamic blessing for the dead. The Prophet Muhammad affirmed that Muslim blessings for the righteous non-Muslim dead were appropriate. Gjon escaped martyrdom by coming to America, as many Kosovars did in the 1998-99 war. The “land of heroes and martyrs” deserves to be better known to the world, beginning with the calvary of its Catholic thinkers.