The Unknown Martyrs of Albania


 religious who work in Albania, forty of them holding pictures of the martyrs of the Communist period
Religious who work in Albania, forty of them holding pictures of the martyrs of the Communist period

Scutari:  For most British people, the first thing that springs to mind is the Crimean War. Names to conjure with are Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and Fanny Taylor. Fanny Taylor was the foundress of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, and was the first editor of The Month, the forerunner of Thinking Faith.

I found myself there last Friday though now it is called Shkoder. I arrived at the cemetery with the sixty delegates to the Union of Conferences of European Major Superiors. Waiting for us there were the religious who work in Albania, forty of them holding pictures of the martyrs of the Communist period.  What was different about this group of martyrs was that they came from the Orthodox Church and the Muslim faith as well as the Catholic Church.

We went in procession along the street from the cemetery to the Poor Clare Convent which is in the grounds of the prison where most of the martyrs were tortured and killed.  There we made a stations of the Cross which brought together the words and lives of fourteen of the martyrs together with the Passion of Jesus Christ.  It was a deeply moving experience and gave us an insight into the sense that the Albanian people have of living in a country founded on the common martyrdom.

The Jewish street

Many things connected with the John Ogilvie celebrations.  The walk through the streets reminded me of the Ogilvie walk between the Cathedral and the place of execution that was part of my teenage years praying for the canonisation of Ogilvie. The sense that at a certain point a martyr slips free from their own particular context and belongs to everyone.

 So in the only majority Islamic country in Europe, there is a fierce memory not to forget the attempt by Enver Hoxha to eradicate everything to do with religion.  We also learned how Muslims and Christians had worked together during the second world war to save the Jews. Albania had about 200 Jews at the beginning of the war. It subsequently became a safe haven for several hundred Jewish refugees from other countries. At the Wannsee Conference in 1942, Adolf Eichmann, planner of the mass murder of Jews across Europe, estimated the number of Jews in Albania that were to be killed at 200.[10] Nevertheless, Jews in Albania remained protected by the local population and this protection continued even after the occupation of Albania by Nazi forces after the capitulation of Italy on September 8, 1943. At the end of the war, Albania had a population of 2,000 Jews.

For a Jesuit, I was ashamed that I did not know that three of my brothers had been martyred. Brother Gjon Pantalia, Father Daniel DanJani and Father Giovanni Fausti suffered terribly along with many others including the young Stigmatin aspirant Maria Tuci who is the one woman in the group. 

Forty martyrs is a phrase which particularly resonant in these islands. We pray for the people of Albania that they may continue to be inspired by their martyrs, who may be beatified later in November, one year after Pope Francis visited Tirana.

James Crampsey

Pope Francis visits Tirana