April 4, 2007

FROM GRAY TO GOD:

Albanians Rediscover God, If Not Old-Time Religion (Mary Jordan, 4/04/07, Washington Post)

In a country that once officially outlawed God, religion is back -- but in a different way than before the long experiment in godlessness. Many Albanians have resumed spiritual practices with a faith strengthened by the years of suppression. At the same time, new practices and beliefs are being planted by a wave of foreign missionaries and money, making this tiny Adriatic country a remarkable example of the globalization of religion.

Albanians "are happy to have religion back," said the Rev. Zef Pllumi, 83, a Catholic priest who spent 25 years in prison for his beliefs. Many people here welcome the foreign attention, saying the country needed the outside help. But Pllumi sees risks in the outside influence. "Foreigners don't know our tradition, and many of those who study abroad come back with fundamentalist ideas," he said.

In cities across this mountainous country, new houses of worship gleam alongside dreary Soviet-style apartment blocks like shiny gems, nearly all built with money from individuals and organizations in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, the United States, Greece, Italy and a long list of other nations.

Christian missionaries and Muslim imams have arrived in large numbers, hoping to attract new followers among the population of 3.5 million. Libya, Egypt, Malaysia and other Muslim countries have paid for hundreds of Albanians to study religion in their countries and return here to teach. Many of Albania's top religious leaders come from abroad -- one Catholic archbishop is Italian, another is a former New Yorker, and the head of the Orthodox Church is Greek.

In Albania, once one of the most closed countries in the world, some farmers still depend on horse-drawn carts to traverse the many rutted roads. There is no McDonald's, and Internet access is a luxury. Outside this lakeside city, the idiosyncratic "pillboxes" -- tiny, one-man bunkers built to protect against an invasion that never came -- dot hills and farmland.

But so do houses painted lime, tangerine, purple and other bright colors, a statement by people with new freedom to own something and to be different in a land that was once uniformly gray.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2007 12:00 AM
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