Albanian Communist era martyrs beatified


Shkodër (Albania) (AFP)

Thousands of people gathered on Saturday to celebrate the beatification of 38 Catholics executed or tortured to death in Albania under the regime of communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

Vatican officials and clergy from several European countries joined 20,000 members of Albania's small Catholic community for the beatification mass at the cathedral in the northwestern city of Shkodra.

"The communist dictatorship's religious genocide took their lives but it could never kill their dignity, their faith, their spirit...," said Vatican representative Cardinal Angelo Amato.

Seven bishops, 111 priests, 10 seminarists and eight nuns died in detention or were executed between 1945 and 1985, accused of having hidden arms to overthrow the regime, or of being spies or traitors.

Hoxha, who died in 1985, tried to eradicate religion from his country, officially declaring it an atheist state in 1967.

Several thousand people crammed into the cathedral for the mass while thousands more followed via big screens from outside.

Photographs of the 38 were displayed on a huge cross at the cathedral's entrance.

"They were all cruelly executed, they even had no grave where their families could mourn them," said Angelo Massafra, the archbishop of Shkodra, adding that the remains of only 10 were ever found.

Father Ernest Simoni, 88, who spent nearly two decades doing forced labour in prison and in the fields, told AFP before the mass it would be uplifting.

"Today I feel reborn with the beatification of 38 martyrs, a number of whom I personally knew," said the clergyman who on November 19 will become only the second Albanian to become a cardinal.

"This is the faith and life that triumph over cruel violence and social injustice," he said.

More than 30 years after Hoxha's death, the dictator's dream of an atheist country has long since disappeared.

According to the national institute of statistics, 56.7 percent of Albania's three million people identify as Muslims, while more than 10 percent are Catholic and almost seven percent Orthodox.