Evangelicals commend Albania for steps forward in religious freedom

The WEA Human Rights Ambassador was meeting with the President of Albania to discuss the country's recognition of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance (AEA).

Thomas Schirrmacher (r) meeting with Albanian President Bujar Faik Nishani (l)

The World Evangelical Alliance has commended Albania for improvements in religious freedom within the country.

The WEA Human Rights Ambassador met with the President of Albania to discuss the country's recognition of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance (AEA).

Thomas Schirrmacher, also Director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom at the World Evangelical Alliance, thanked President Bujar Faik Nishani for the new official recognition of the AEA, which was formed in 1989.

Religious freedom has not always been endorsed by the Albanian state, which remains laicist. In 1965, under the leadership of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the government declared Albania the world's first officially atheist state and forced the closure of all religious institutions and places of worship across the country, including over 2,000 churches and mosques.

1967 saw the beginning of a 'Cultural and Ideological Revolution', during which atheism was promoted and even religiously-based names were banned. A list of 3,000 state-approved, secular names were instead given to new parents to choose from.

The penal code of 1977 stipulated that "the production, distribution, or storage of religious literature" could lead to a 10-year prison sentence, and those caught with religious objects such as holy texts or icons were also severely punished.

All religious practices were forbidden, and many religious leaders were arrested or forced into hiding, some being executed or starved to death. Under Hoxha's leadership, the government believed religion to have come from unwanted foreign influences and established a violent regime to persecute those who practised their faith.

However following his death in 1985, Hoxha was succeeded by Ramiz Alia, who although a communist was more tolerant in his approach to religion. He began to implement a series of policies which granted greater freedom to those who wanted to practise their beliefs.

In December 1990, the ban on religious observance and practice was officially lifted.

Those of faith have enjoyed greater religious freedom in the years since, and in November 2010 the Albanian Minister of Culture signed an agreement with the AEA which granted legal status to over 135 evangelical churches across the country.

However, the AEA itself was not officially recognised by the state until recently, and it is still not permitted to be directly involved in the process of restoring churches that were nationalised under the communist regime.

Schirrmacher has been party to discussions about the role and place of Christianity in Albania with church leaders, including the head of the autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Archbishop Anastasios Yoannoulatos, who thanked the WEA representative for the organisation's engagement on behalf of his church.

Schirrmacher and President Nishani, himself a Muslim, met for one hour, during which the WEA's concerns were presented on the situation of Christians in Albania. The WEA said it hoped to establish a better partnership for the future.

"Now is a good time for both church and state to recognize that the once closed churches can be good citizens," the WEA said.

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