Interview with Deacon Anastasios Bendo of the Orthodox Church in Albania
Deacon Anastasios Bendo is the secretary of the Primate of the Albanian Orthodox Church, and works primarily as a translator and editor. In this interview he discusses the history of the Albanian Church, its current witness and struggles, and the nature of Christian marriage today.

Priest Antoniy Borisov: The Church of Albania is something mysterious for us. We don’t know a lot about it. Can you tell us about your Church, about its modern situation? What problems does your Church resolve today in this modern situation, and what are some of its successes?

Deacon Anastasios Bendo: If you’ve been at a Patriarchal Liturgy of your Church, it is sure that you will have heard the name of the Archbishop of Albania, Anastasios, of Tirana and of all Albania. It is an Apostolic Church, existing since the first century. And it is a Church that has a lot of martyrs, that offered a lot of martyrs in the three first centuries of the persecution of the Christian Church, and in Byzantine times continued its life and its effort by being a loving part of the Orthodox Church. From that time since now, the Church of Albania is present in all the areas of Albanian life. It offers a lot of contribution to the cultural, and spiritual and human areas, and even to the national background of our country. Our Church was recognized as autocephalous in 1937 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, because until then, it was an Eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Of course, this status, that was a little bit special, was more free; it was like an autonomous Church, but at that time because after the fifteenth century we fell under Ottoman rule – we had to be careful. To be careful, in order to preserve all our traditions and our faith. So, in that time, after the Ottoman rule, when our country earned its liberty again, our Church was proclaimed autocephalous and was recognized not only by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but also by all Orthodox Churches, including the Russian Patriarchate. And our situation is something that it is connected with the past. I mention this briefly.

But today’s situation: we had a very strong communist persecution in our country. We had to endure a total persecution. That was something which happened for the first time in the history of the world, when religion and all the religious structures were condemned as a crime by the constitution of our country in the communist time. So the Albanian Orthodox Church had to suffer and to endure this terrible persecution that lasted for 40 years; but in the middle, after 25 years it was even more hard. It was one of the most, let’s say, wild things, that the history of religion in the world has seen until now. All our churches, with a few exceptions, were destroyed. All our clergy were defrocked; many of them were arrested. They were sent to jail. And all the monasteries were closed and were destroyed too. In one certain moment in the 90s when democracy and democratic rule came again to us, our Church was totally destroyed. At that time the Ecumenical Patriarchate, because our Church belongs to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, sent Archbishop Anastasios as an exarch, who at that time was bishop of Androussa and who was acting as a bishop in Africa, in order to see what remained from the communist times in our country. And the situation was terrible. Everything was destroyed, and was in a very painful state.

So we had to start from the beginning. We had only 18 clergymen, who were very old people, so we had to start to work with a new generation. And now today we have 145 clergymen, which means that there are a lot from that time, because Albania is a small country. After that we built all of the churches because many of them in the main cities were destroyed. We had to build all the churches from the beginning. Everything was in ruins. We built our theological Academy that was reopened, after 60 years of persecution, for the first time.

But the most important was that Archbishop Anastasios made all possible in order to revive the spiritual life of the people that had been destroyed during the communist persecution. And this is an effort that continues until now. The Church is continuously growing and the challenges that we have now are even bigger than before. Albania, for the people who don’t know, is a country that is multicultural and also multi-religious. We have three religions; the basic ones that are there are the Orthodox, the Catholics and the Muslims. The Orthodox with the Catholic and the other Christian denominations, such as Protestants, are 45% of all the society. The Muslims are 55%, but they are divided into big groups, that is the Sunni and the Shia, so they are 30-35% and 15%, something like this.
This situation in Albania is something specific, because at the base of our society is that all of the religions have to live together, to coexist peacefully and in harmony. This is done because it is one of the mottos of the Albanian new state in democratic times; when it was created after the Ottoman rule it was made clear that all religions will live peacefully. And this is done. But, of course, in our world, in the modern world, in Europe, Albania is much better known as an Islamic country, which is not true, because there is no big dominance of Muslims. It should be more like 70%, which it is not.

But with them we have, as I said before, good harmony, and we have a lot of interfaith dialogue. So are making a lot of efforts to be with them. For example, one of the common efforts is the creation of an interfaith commission, where all the Muslims and Christians they are all together, and they try to have a common voice on certain themes that are really important for our country. The challenges that our Church is facing today have multiplied because of the world situation.
First of all, let’s say, it is the state of that atheism that was reproduced in communist times. That was something that we have in common with other eastern countries of Europe. We have to face it because it is deep in education, that God does not exist, that religion is the opium of the people; so we had to work in that direction really hard, especially with certain ages who were raised and educated in the communist era, to convince them of the contrary, that the truth is different. That is one of the things.

The other thing is that now we are living in a democratic system, but we still have to work for the legal status of our Church. The state still has not given to us all our properties, which is something that is not right from the legal point of view. They promised us to give all our properties back but many of our properties like icons, books, all the relics, and sometimes even all the objects for the Liturgy are all in the state museums. Of course the state has made a lot of progress in that because it recognized the status of our Church 2 or 3 years ago, which was a big step in relations between the Church and the State.

Another challenge is the education of young people. The Church is making a lot of efforts in that. Because many Albanians now are immigrants in other parts of Europe, so we take care in order that the younger generation that is now there with us in Albania will be educated in the Christian faith. Another challenge is the education of the clergy. Archbishop Anastasios made a lot of efforts in this directions by building not only schools, but by helping them with everything, from their first steps until they are ordained and afterwards. Because our structure in that is a little bit different than in other countries. The state does not pay something to the clergy and does not take care of their education, so the Church has to do everything by herself to find funds for the priests, for their salaries, for their homes, and for their children, in order to give them a good education.

A.B.: Is the education of clergymen in your church recognized by the state? Do they have government diplomas?

Dn A.B.: We still do not have religious education in the schools. For example, all big religions in Albania are trying to talk with the state so that religious education, which is really important, will be in the state schools. That is a difficult task for us because the state still is a little bit hesitant in recognizing our institutions. Our Church’s theological Academy now is going to one university to be a faculty of theology and philosophy, and it is recognized. We have a lot of elementary and kindergarden schools; Archbishop Anastasios made a lot of efforts in that area, so he made it possible for the Church to care for children from kindergarden until university.

A lot of people are going through these stages in order that the young generation will be educated with the basis of religion and of faith too, together with an academic formation to be in that religion. We are trying to develop continuously our education system, which is not part of the state system; it’s called private, but it still is common for other confessions in Albania, for everybody to have his own system of education, because schools are still atheistic and based on an atheistic style.

A.B.: Your presentation was about very important theme, about the Christian understanding of marriage and the family. Nowadays we see that many young people are hesitating. They don’t know how to build a family, and sometimes they don’t want to build a family at all, because they think that there will be no future for this family. What do you think are the main obstacles for young people to make a good Christian family?

Dn A.B.: First of all for me is the fact that young people today face a big dilemma: that is ­ – God or not God? I mean, that is the crucial point. They don’t have a clear idea or clear faith, so they hesitate, because they don’t see something that is really important in that. The second one is the materialistic points of view of our societies; we are like consumerist societies. We are trying to be like modern people who are people that consume; people see that other people can do a lot of other things with money – but the family is not in the goals of today. Something that is seen more as a contract, but which is a spiritual need. I say that it’s not so much understood today because is seen only as a contract between people in order to own material goods, but not as something that is higher than that. So the purpose of marriage, I think, is not understood right.

Another is the fact that the sin today in society is bigger than before, or is more easy than before, and that has made it a little more difficult for the young people to feel the need of a good family, because life is so quick, and things are so much in change, that for them, they don’t see that the family can stand, can stand forever. That is a kind of relativism, and it is spread in all aspects of our life; it does not help in this direction that people cannot see something that is stable in the family. And another thing for me, the fourth one, is school. Our schools, our education, are really weaker now. Young people are not educated with the right ideals and the right things, so that they can face life like it is in reality. But they are trying to make them, to form them more on a technical basis and not on the spiritual world. I see this as a big problem in our world today.

A.B.: Let’s imagine: if you were able to do five things to improve the situation of the modern family in this world, what things would you do?

Dn A.B.: Only five? First of all, to put Christ more in the family. The second one is to put more love, real love, that comes from Christ. The third one is to put more truth. Truth is the motive why we create a family. And the fourth is to put more interest not only for ourselves, but more love for the other person, because marriage is not a closed circle. And the fifth one is to see the world like a big family, so that everything that is in this world is not something that is casual, but to see our responsibility, not only in our families, but in all the world. So these are five things that I think are important.

A.B.: The last question. What are the main challenges of this secular modern society to the Orthodox Church? And what can the Orthodox Church do for this society that doesn’t need God or Church?

Dn A.B.: I think that that people cannot live without God, because God is something natural inside of man. All the societies of the world, even the communist ones, try to say that God does not exist. But that isn’t true. Today what this world needs more is the sanctity that comes from God. And I think that maybe we are richer, we know more things, but in one thing we lack more, that we do not have God so much. So the Orthodox Church has to give to this world more the true God, who this world needs; a God who is the God of love, who is the God of truth, who is the God of sacrifice for others.
As one of our Christian poets says, Christians are responsible for all the world. I think that in this world the Orthodox Christian Church has to give something that is essential. And what is essential is God. So only the Orthodox Church can offer God in the true meaning of that word, because it is the Church of Christ.

A.B.: As a final point, can you say some words for Christian young people, who are now preparing to build their own families?

Dn A.B.: First, for them I have to say that they have to stay close to Christ and stay close to his Church. Only that way is the most secure way to make a good family and to make a pure life more alive. That is really, really important to know, that marriage is a part of salvation. It is a cross, but it is a way to God, to paradise. So they have to be prepared. And another thing they have to know from now is how to pray, because in the family, in a marriage, somebody who is there has to pray a lot in order to overcome all the problems.

A.B.: Thank you very much for the interview.

Dn A.B.: Thank you.

Interviewer: priest Antoniy Borisov

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