Hoxha's Antireligious Campaign
A dogmatic Stalinist, Hoxha considered religion a divisive force
and undertook an active campaign against religious institutions,
despite the virtual absence of religious intolerance in Albanian
society. The Agrarian Reform Law of August 1945, for example,
nationalized most property of religious institutions, including
the estates of monasteries, orders, and dioceses. Many clergy
and believers were tried, tortured, and executed. All foreign
Roman Catholic priests, monks, and nuns were expelled in 1946.
In January 1949, almost three years after the adoption of the
first communist constitution, which guaranteed freedom of religion,
the government issued a far-reaching Decree on Religious Communities.
The law required that religious communities be sanctioned by the
state, that they comply with "the laws of the state, law and order,
and good customs," and that they submit all appointments, regulations,
and bylaws for approval by the government. Even pastoral letters
and parish announcements were subject to the approval of party
officials. Religious communities or branches that had their headquarters
outside the country, such as the Jesuit and Franciscan orders,
were henceforth ordered to terminate their activities in Albania.
Religious institutions were forbidden to have anything to do with
the education of the young, because that had been made the exclusive
province of the state. All religious communities were prohibited
from owning real estate and from operating philanthropic and welfare
institutions and hospitals.
Although there were tactical variations in Hoxha's approach to
each of the major denominations, his overarching objective was
the eventual destruction of all organized religion in Albania.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the regime achieved control over
the Muslim faith by formalizing the split between the Sunni and
Bektashi sects, eliminating all leaders who opposed Hoxha's policies,
and exploiting those who were more tractable. Steps were also
taken to purge all Orthodox clergy who did not yield to the demands
of the regime, and to use the church as a means of mobilizing
the Orthodox population behind government policies. The Roman
Catholic Church, chiefly because it maintained close relations
with the Vatican and was more highly organized than the Muslim
and Orthodox faiths, became the principal target of persecution.
Between 1945 and 1953, the number of priests was reduced drastically
and the number of Roman Catholic churches was decreased from 253
to 100. All Catholics were stigmatized as fascists, although only
a minority had collaborated with the Italian occupation authorities
during World War II.
The campaign against religion peaked in the 1960s. Inspired by
China's Cultural Revolution, Hoxha called for an aggressive cultural-educational
struggle against "religious superstition" and assigned the antireligious
mission to Albania's students. By May 1967, religious institutions
had been forced to relinquish all 2,169 churches, mosques, cloisters,
and shrines in Albania, many of which were converted into cultural
centers for young people. As the literary monthly Nendori reported
the event, the youth had thus "created the first atheist nation
in the world."
The clergy were publicly vilified and humiliated, their vestments
taken and desecrated. Many Muslim mullahs and Orthodox priests
buckled under and renounced their "parasitic" past. More than
200 clerics of various faiths were imprisoned, others were forced
to seek work in either industry or agriculture, and some were
executed or starved to death. The cloister of the Franciscan order
in Shkodėr was set on fire, which resulted in the death of four
All previous decrees that had officially sanctioned the nominal
existence of organized religion were annulled in 1967. Subsequently,
the 1976 constitution banned all "fascist, religious, warmongerish,
antisocialist activity and propaganda," and the penal code of
1977 imposed prison sentences of three to ten years for "religious
propaganda and the production, distribution, or storage of religious
literature." A new decree that in effect targeted Albanians with
Christian names stipulated that citizens whose names did not conform
to "the political, ideological, or moral standards of the state"
were to change them. It was also decreed that towns and villages
with religious names must be renamed. Thus, in the southern areas
populated by ethnic Greeks, about ninety towns and places named
after Greek Orthodox saints received secular names.
Hoxha's brutal antireligious campaign succeeded in eradicating
formal worship, but some Albanians continued to practice their
faith clandestinely, risking severe punishment. Individuals caught
with Bibles, icons, or other religious objects faced long prison
sentences. Parents were afraid to pass on their faith, for fear
that their children would tell others. Officials tried to entrap
practicing Christians and Muslims during religious fasts, such
as Lent and Ramadan, by distributing dairy products and other
forbidden foods in school and at work, and then publicly denouncing
those who refused the food. Clergy who conducted secret services
were incarcerated; in 1980, a Jesuit priest was sentenced to "life
until death" for baptizing his nephew's newborn twins.
Data as of April 1992