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The Story of Archbishop Anastasios - p.2

"We Must Not Waste A Single Day"

by Nicholas Gage

So the patriarch asked Anastasios to stay and rebuild the Orthodox Church himself. When his appointment was announced, many doubted that the fragile scholar – born Anastasios Yannoulatos in Piraeus, Greece – was up to the challenge. Two severe attacks of malaria had forced him to leave his missionary duties in East Africa, but he continued to teach and write books, including a respected study of Islam.

When the call came to go to Albania, “all reason told me this was a mission without a chance,” says the archbishop, who speaks five languages, including English. “I was asked to revive the church without any financial support, in a destitute country undergoing a wrenching political transformation. I would have to learn a difficult language at an advanced age, live under harsh conditions and expect no protection against threats to my life. Everyone said I'd be crazy to stay.”

Then, he says, he saw the despair in the faces of the Albanians he met. “I thought, ‘Who's going to help theses people? Who's going to give them hope?' I knew this was a test, and I said to myself, ‘If you have faith, stay and struggle. If you don't go home.'“

So he stayed. During the next decade, Archbishop Anastasios overcame centuries of ethnic and religious hostility to establish a new church throughout an entire nation. He built 83 church buildings, repaired another 140 in ruins, restored five monasteries and constructed a seminary, a convent and an archdiocese headquarters.

“From the beginning, he has tried not only to resurrect the Orthodox Church of Albania but also to serve all Albanians – by building schools, medical clinics, youth centers children's homes nurseries and camps,” says the Rev. Luke Veronis, 38, and Orthodox priest from Pennsylvania who has worked with the archbishop for nine years. “All are open to everyone – Christians, Muslims, nonbelievers.”

Our first priority is young people,” explains Anastasios, who recently comforted a group of village children lined up outside a mobile dental unit by climbing into the van and letting the dentist examine his teeth first.

The admiration he has earned from all Albanians saved Anastasios mission – and probably his life – more then once. Because he came from Greece, which has had border disputes with Albania and he defended the rights of minorities, including ethnic Greeks he was subjected to fierce attacks.

In 1994 – in an effort to get rid of Anastasios – Albania's first democratically elected president, Sali Berisha, drafted a constitution that required the head of the Orthodox Church to be born in Albania and live there for 20 years. The constitution was put to a referendum; everyone was certain it would pass because it had the government's support. The archbishop packed his bags. But to everyone's amazement, the constitution was defeated; Albanians from all major religions had voted against it.

In time, Anastasios even wan the admiration of Sali Berisha, who is now leader of the major opposition party. “I respect what he has accomplished, especially in rebuilding the Orthodox Church,” Dr. Berisha, a heart surgeon, now says.

Having survived the referendum, Anastasios faced more trouble in 1997, when Albania exploded into chaos after the pyramid schemes that most Albanians had invested in collapsed. Al but 20 foreigners left the county, and anarchy prevailed as mobs raided military depots, seizing a million rifles, and gunfire lit the nights. The archbishop appeared on radio and television to urge calm and instill hope. “International aid workers had fled, so all of us, including the archbishop, delivered food to needy families, sometimes traveling eight hours to remote villages to d it,” says Penny Deligiannis, who headed the humanitarian arm of the Orthodox Church in Albania.

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