22 December 2015
By Marianne Ejdersten*
Renowned for his friendly, peaceful attitude and his inspiring speeches, nothing seems impossible for this man. He has struggled and faced a multitude of difficulties including severe illness and persecution, and he was asked to take up a new position at age 62. He committed to a country whose language and culture were unknown to him, arriving in the only officially declared atheist state, asked to rebuild the church.
In Tirana, Albania, 24 years later, he hosted the Global Christian Forum (GCF) consultation from 1-5 November. There, 150 high-level leaders and representatives of various church traditions from more than 60 countries gathered to listen and learn, and to stand in solidarity with churches and Christians experiencing discrimination and persecution in the world today.“It’s the fruit of our work together in Albania,” said Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania.
Archbishop Anastasios granted an interview to the World Council of Churches (WCC) news. This conversation took place in the archbishop’s residence in Tirana.
An apostle of peace and reconciliation, since meeting him in 1997, he is one of my greatest role models. I know, I’m merely one of many who share this. We meet in his residence office the day after his 86th birthday. He extends a warm greeting, offering Greek coffee and cakes. The welcoming room has warm colours, flowers and icons. It tells Archbishop Anastasios’s life story, one sometimes reflecting hazard. A double-glazed pane stopped a bullet that is suspended while it was in full flight toward him. It was fired by a sniper during the 1997 political upheaval that pushed predominantly Muslim Albania into chaos, nearly claiming the archbishop’s life. “I keep the window,” Archbishop Anastasios notes, “to remind me that life can end in a second. We must not waste a single day.”
Few men use their days like Archbishop Anastasios. Frail but energetic, he has spent the last 24 years overcoming immense obstacles to achieve a near-miracle in one of Europe’s poorest countries.
From Greece to Africa and Albania
Born into a religious family in Pireus, Greece on 4 November 1929, as a boy he was interested in science, but his view changed after four years of Nazi occupation of Greece. That brought fear, destruction, and the horrors of the Second World War. He realized that the only way to make sense of the suffering was to work for eternal peace; the kind that can only come from Jesus Christ. He has dedicated his life and career to fulfilling Christ’s mandate.
His official title is Archbishop of Tirana, Durres and All Albania, but Anastasios has sometimes been called the Archbishop of Tirana and All. It isn't a title he objects to. "I am everyone's archbishop. For us, each person is a brother or sister. The church is not just for itself. It is for all the people.”
During the 1990s, around 160,000 people perished in the Balkan Peninsula violence. Although the conflicts largely hinged on ethnic differences, religion played a critical role in the three-sided war that embroiled Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Muslims. The archbishop discovered soon after arriving in Albania in 1992, his role was not merely to lead the Orthodox Church in Albania. "You must bear in mind that Albania had very little experience of being an independent country and even less of freedom.” During the communist era, from 1945 to 1990, Albania, just north of Greece, became the only country in the world to prohibit all religious practice. Just the act of crossing oneself could land one in prison. Every church, mosque and synagogue was destroyed or converted to secular use as Albanians, who now number 3 million, were isolated from the rest of the world.
The archbishop recalls, “The Albanian State was created in 1912-1913. Then there were 25 years of trying to build up that state in Europe’s poorest country. In such a setting it is necessary to think in larger terms, about social development as a whole, to think not in terms of decades but centuries….We must think what it means to be free.”
If you have faith, stay and struggle
After communism collapsed, in 1991 the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, decided to send Archbishop Anastasios to Albania to report on the country’s religious situation. He found 1,600 destroyed churches and only 22 elderly priests still alive of the 440 who served Albania before communism. Albanians were, however, desperate for religious freedom and many gathered for services in fields where nothing remained of their former churches except broken bells.
He saw the despair in Albanians’ faces. “I thought, who's going to help these people? Who is going to give them hope?' I said to myself, ‘If you have faith, stay and struggle. If you don’t, go home.’” So he stayed. Over the next decade, Archbishop Anastasios fought to overcome centuries of ethnic and religious hostility, to establish a new church throughout the nation.Archbishop Anastasios underline “About 150 new churches (both large and small) have been erected, 60 churches and monasteries, designated as cultural monuments, have been renovated and restored, and 160 churches have been repaired. More than 70 buildings have been purchased, built and reconstructed to make preschools, schools, youth centres, health centers, metropolitan sees, hospitality homes, workshops, soup kitchens, etc. Altogether there have been more than 460 building projects”.
All kinds of education are crucial for the archbishop. “Education is far more than books to read and facts to memorize. The goal must be to help shape people who are not only capable intellectually or skilled in certain specializations, but motivated by respect and love rather than greed and fear,” he observes.
"God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power. Those who fear God fear nothing else."