The Church of St. Athanasius in the town of Drymades, known in Albanian as Dhermi, was completely destroyed by government agents acting on the authority of Albania’s Interior Ministry. The action has raised fears in Albania’s large community of ethnic Greeks of renewed persecution of the country’s Orthodox Christians, who constitute a third of the country’s 3.5 million people.
“The razing of St. Athanasius Church echoes the brutal actions of the Stalinist regime that ruled Albania for half of the last century when government forces executed priests, turned churches into stables and imprisoned anyone wearing a cross or reading the Bible,” said Nicholas Gage, president of the Federation. “It is a shameful act for a country trying to shed its violent past and become a member of the European Union.”
Mr. Gage said the only way Tirana can make amends for its brutal actions is to offer an alternative site for the construction of a new church and to provide the funds to build it.
St. Athanasius was first destroyed in 1972 by agents of Stalinist dictator Enver Hohxa and its stones were used to build a water depot. When communism fell in the country in 1992, residents built a new church on the site of the old one. It served the Orthodox Christians in the town as a place of worship for 23 years.
Last week as worshipers were observing religious services, local government agents acting on an order from the Interior Ministry removed icons and other religious objects and began to destroy parts of the building. The next day the agents returned in cars without license plates and continued the demolition despite the protests of the local priest who was almost crushed by falling debris. By August 26 the whole building was razed to the ground.
The Orthodox Church of Albania, leaders of the ethnic Greek minority, human rights activists and foreign diplomats have all condemned the destruction of the church by Albanian authorities as arbitrary, brutal and in violation of the country’s own laws. A spokesman for the Orthodox Church of Albania noted that Law 10057 passed in 2009 that ratified a previous agreement between the Albanian nation and the Orthodox Church guarantees the inviolability of places of worship and their protection by the state.
Reports from Tirana say that U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu met with Prime Minister Edi Rama to protest the destruction of the church as insensitive to the rights of the Orthodox faith in Albania and the ethnic Greek minority and to urge him to seek a solution to the problem acceptable to both.
Omonia, the largest advocacy group representing the Greek minority, and the Human Rights Party of Albania, the minority’s political organization, both issued statements condemning the brutal destruction of the church and warning that it will seriously harm relations between the government of Prime Minister Rama and all minorities in the country.
Those warnings were echoed by the leaders of the Panepirotic Federation of America both in the United States and in Albania, where the organization’s vice president, Menelaos Tzelios, is traveling to assess the treatment of minorities in the country. Mr Tzelios called on the Albanian government to move quickly and decisively to repair relations with its Orthodox Christians citizens if it wants to claim a rightful place in the community of civilized nations.