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The Story of Archbishop Anastasios

"We Must Not Waste A Single Day"

by Nicholas Gage

Albania – like Iraq today- once faced an uncertain future. But in just 12 years, Archbishop Anastasios has helped inspire and restore a brutalized people

A bullet is suspended in the window of the Spartan Tirana office of Archbishop Anastasios, head of the Orthodox Church in Albania – stopped in its flight toward him by the double-glazed pane. It was fired by a sniper during the 1997 political upheaval that pushed Albania – a predominantly Muslim country – into chaos and almost claimed the archbishop life. “I keep it there,” Anastasios says, “to remind me that life can end in a second. We must not waste a single day.”

Few men use their days like Archbishop Anastasios. Frail but energetic, the 73-year-old prelate has spent the last 12 years overcoming immense obstacles to achieve a near miracle in one of the poorest countries in Europe.

During communist rule, which lasted from 1945 to 1990, Albania – a nation of 3.5 million people north of Greece – became the only country in the world to prohibit all practice of religion. Just the act of crossing oneself could lead to a prison sentence. Every church, mosque and synagogue was destroyed or converted to secular use as Albanians were isolated from the rest of the world.

In the dozen years that Anastasios has been in Albania, he has not only resurrected the Orthodox Church but also inspired a bitter, brutalized people. “I can't think of anyone who has contributed more to the rebirth of Albania as a free European nation,” says Albania's Prime Minister, Fatos Nano.

How the former university professor managed to revive a people battered by decades of ruthless dictatorship offers a powerful lesson to Americans facing the same challenge in Iraq.

"Right now, Iraqis, like the Albanians when I cane here, are suspicious and hostile because they lived in fear and oppression for so long," the archbishop says. "The secret to changing those attitudes is to show that Americans care about and respect then. Respect for the other is the essence of both Christianity and democracy. It's especially important to stay true to that ideal in places where cultures clash.”"

After communism collapsed, Archbishop Anastasios was sent to Albania in 1991 by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, to report on the country's religious situation. He found 1600 churches destroyed and only 22 elderly priests still alive of the 440 who had served Albania before communism. But Albanians were so desperate for religious freedom many gathered for services in fields where nothing remained of their former churches but broken bells.

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