Europe's biggest grouping of Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant churches has called on Albania to return all sacred property seized from religious communities during 46 years of communist rule that followed the Second World War.
"Much of the property confiscated under communism, after 18 years of democracy, has still to be returned to the churches and other religious communities," the Conference of European Churches said in a statement released on 11 February during a meeting of its 10-member presidium in Tirana and Durrës, the country's second-largest city.
Albania was pronounced "cleansed of religion" in 1967, under its post-war communist leader Enver Hoxha, and declared the world's first fully atheist state. For more than 20 years, all religious activities were strictly forbidden, and many religious buildings were destroyed.
The church grouping's leaders welcomed the freedom of religion that they said now exists in Albania following the end of communism in 1991. But they expressed "concern" about the failure of the authorities to return the property of religious communities. They urged the Albanian government to "reconsider, without delay, the return of all sacred places ... with all their associated land".
An estimated 70 per cent of Albania's 3.5 million people are Muslims. Orthodox Christians are estimated at 20 per cent of Albania's population, and Roman Catholics make up about 10 per cent.
Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania is hosting the meeting. He came from Greece to Albania in 1992 to head the Orthodox Autocephalous (self-governing) Church of Albania and to rebuild its life following communist rule.
Since then, more than 150 new churches have been built, 70 monasteries and historical monuments have been restored and 160 churches have been repaired, according to statistics published by CEC.
At the same time, the Orthodox church has initiated several activities in the fields of health, education, social engagement, agricultural development, culture, environment and interfaith dialogue. There are about 140 clergy serving the Orthodox church in Albania.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]