September 12, 2014

From Saint Kosmas to Anastasios of Albania

Maximos Harakopoulos
August 31, 2014

United the congregation responds to the call of the Deacon and they say with one voice the "Our Father" in Albanian.

To my mind come the words of the Regional of Epirus, Alekos Kachrimanis, along the journey from Ioannina, Greece to Kolikontasi, Albania where the Monastery with the grave of Kosmas the Aitolos is.

In 1991, when Archbishop Anastasios liturgized for the first time as Patriarchal Exarch in Albania, with the mission of resurrecting the Albanian Church from the ashes, many Albanians were sitting cross-legged in the pews smoking and chatting.

Albania under Enver Hoxha was the first official atheist state in the world, that relentlessly persecuted Christians.

An entire generation grew up without knowing anything about the Orthodox tradition and St. Kosmas, who was buried in their land along with his teachings.

Listening to them recite the "Our Father" and earlier the "I Believe" helped me realize the miracle that occurred in Albania by the illumined figure of Anastasios.

From 1991 until today it has been an uphill road.

Despite the works of love towards all, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, there has remained the permanent extremist objective of nationalist circles in Albania.

"Devils in Cassocks"

The atmosphere in the packed church is highly charged emotionally, as this year marks the 300th year since the birth of St. Kosmas, who came from mainland Greece to Northern Epirus and Albania to boost the faith of enslaved Christians of the Ottoman Empire, but also to prepare them, talking about the need to build schools, to bring about the "desirable" [freedom].

The "news" circulating these last few days is that extreme nationalists will come from Tirana with flags to the Monastery of Saint Kosmas in order to riot, which forces the Archbishop to condemn all those who are trying to keep Albania entrenched in its atheistic past.

They even went so far as to release pamphlets with the image of St. Kosmas together with a photo of Archbishop Anastasios titled "Devils in Cassocks".

They depict St. Kosmas as an anti-Albanian because he exhorted Christians to build Greek schools and to learn the Greek language.

They distort the words of the Saint by saying that he said "the Church is Greek", while the Archbishop explained that in a time when there were no Albanian schools, Kosmas urged the faithful to learn Greek because "the Church is also in the Greek".

Moreover, he even asked the malicious ones to consider, how nowadays, when we encourage a child who wants to deal with computers to learn English, do we ask them to become American?

At the point of "With the fear of God" almost the entire congregation comes forward to commune.'

I don't know Albanian, but the familiar sounds of Byzantine music to the ear helps me understand what is being chanted.

At the time of the exit for the procession of the relics of the Saint around the church, the Archbishop raises a large wooden cross to the congregation, like one of those Kosmas planted wherever he preached, which he said was given to him by the Metropolis of Kefallonia.

In the crowded courtyard of the restored Monastery the dismissal is done and immediately the Archbishop along with everyone else begins to chant triumphantly "Christ is Risen" in Albanian and Greek.

Next to me were deeply moved residents of Northern Epirus. I asked them, with the little ecclesiastical knowledge I have, why "Christ is Risen" was being chanted in the middle of summer? They informed me that when the Archbishop first stepped foot in Albania he asked how to say "Christ is Risen" in Albanian.

He lit a candle saying "Krishti u Νgjall", or "Christ is Risen". The few elderly faithful responded with tears in their eyes: "Vërtet u Νgjall" or "Truly He is Risen".

"Christ is Risen" is perceived as a message of freedom for the Church and the people from the atheistic regime.

This is since the time when he said at the consecration of the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Tirana: "The Resurrection of Christ became the most expressive symbol of our Church."

We venerate the grave of the Saint which is in the adjoining half-ruined church.

On the wall is a fresco of the "Hieromonk" which is a copy of the original that was over the grave.

According to the Dean of the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki, Michael Tritos, this is the most faithful version of the figure of the Saint.

Anastasios is a Gift from God

At the guest house, women have spread out various treats for the pilgrims who have come such a long way. In a meeting of the Archbishop with representatives of the Government, among whom was the Regional of Epirus and Bishops, everyone talks about the need to end marginalization of nationalist circles in both countries that poison relations between our peoples.

When given the opportunity I tell them what a blessing it is for Albania to have the grave of St. Kosmas, and is up to them to contribute to the promotion of the pilgrimage to it, so it can become an attraction for religious tourism.

"Believe me", I tell them, "Anastasios is a gift from God to Albania!"

I don't know how much they realize this. Usually we only see the value of something when we lose it.

Besides, at one time we did not consider him worthy to elect him as a Metropolitan of the Church of Greece.

Again, perhaps this was in God's plan. Before leaving he addresses the pilgrims from Greece.

He speaks with a sweet gentleness that distinguishes him about the difficulties the Church of Albania faces and he asks us to pray for them.

We return along the same road passing through villages with a Greek minority who were tried so much during the years of Hoxha.

Despite our weariness, since we were on our feet from four in the morning to be on time for the liturgy after a five hour drive, we stopped in Gjirokastra.

This old city that dominates on a hill is a monument of UNESCO.

This is continental architecture at its best with stone covered mansions giving it a special color.

En route to the Greek-Albanian border, in villages where we are recognized as minorities - because entire regions, such as Korca and Himara, are considered outside the minority zone - the inscriptions are in Greek.

Our last crossing is in Dervitsani/Dervican, the stronghold of the Greek minority for whom it went badly under the last regime.

"Welcome" says the sign in Greek to the entrance of the village. This is the village of the, until recently, Labor Minister Spyros Xerra, whom I met this morning at liturgy.

We walk around the square. It has become dark. In the cafes they are watching Greek soccer. They call for us to come down to treat us. We were late. They promise us another time to treat us.

Turning towards the bus I wonder how many times Greece told them another time... Now the European path of Albania is the safest for the rights of the Greek minority.

It will suffice for Albania to tread in a proper way and without setbacks.

Mr. Maximus Harakopoulos is an MP of Larisa for New Democracy, a former minister and writer.

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.