Talking about religion in Albania is not as easy as it might be for most of the other European countries. It is a history of glorious testimony to both Christianity and Islam, dark days of communism and surprisingly vivid paganism.  

Paganism was the earliest and the most ancient form of belief, and different from the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Illyrians were more realistic and rational in their belief. They believed in the celestial bodies and in the power of nature: the sun, moon, water, lightning, thunder, rain and fire, rather than on the Gods. Illyrian mythology has its own gods and goddesses like Zana (Diana for Latins), Vidasus (god of the water sources), Medarus (the horse riding warrior), Menzana, Bindi, Redoni (guardian of the sea), Andini, Santona, Latra etc; which were of second importance to them. They believed in the Cult of Sun as the greatest life giving power and illuminator of both mind and spirit; in the Cult of Moon as symbol of femininity, fertility and procreation; in the Cult of Snake as creator of the Illyrians, protector of the warriors and of the dead; and in the Cult of Mount Tomorri (or Dodona) where the ancient Oracle of Dodona was located. 

Christianity in Albania came directly from the predication of Apostle Paul in the 1st century AD and was immediately accepted by the population at large. In the 4th century, Emperor Konstantinos the Great declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and by that time most of the Albanian population was already Christianised. But this is not the end of the story. After the separation of the church into the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Churches, Albanian religious life and belief was divided in two, into catholic and orthodox Christians and the border of this influence was marked by what it is today the Mati River. The religious situation was such until the Ottomans came to Albania (Arberia) in the 15th century. 

At the time of the great Ottoman expansion, Albanian territories were the only ones that were resisting the dominion and did not pay any tributes to the Ottoman Empire. Instead, under the leadership of the National Hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Albanians held back the Ottoman armies and served as protectors of Christianity for 25 years. Skanderbeg himself was declared by the Pope of Rome „Protector and Athlet of Christianity“. After Scanderbeg’s death, Albanians started to convert into Islam, due to the implementation of a new policy of privileges and exemption from heavy taxes, such as defshirme (blood tax – where the sons of the family were taken for life as janissaries)  andxhizja (a per capita tax paid by every Christian member of the family). 

Along with the Janissary tradition imposed on the recruited Albanian youth, by the end of the 12th century Bektashism, a Muslim sect applied by the Corpus of the Janissaries, came to Albania. Bektashism is a mild form of Islamism which is also closer in belief and application to Christianity. Due to the dual nature of this belief, this religion was immediately embraced by the majority of the Albanian population since it granted religious freedom and later on a distinctive national identity.

It is worth mentioning that religion is one of the most important factors that helped the survival and preservation of the Albanian identity throughout centuries. Christianity gave a stronger identity to Albanians during the barbarian and Ottoman invasions by turning it into a holy land of Christianity during the rule of Skanderbeg (15th century). Later on, when Catholic and Orthodox churches were in conflict with each other, it was Islam and Bektashism which protected Albanians from the Slavonic and Hellenic assimilation. 

After World War I, King Zog applied a neutral policy towards the 4 major religions in Albania (Islamic, Bektashi, Orthodox and Catholic), by separating religion from the state and by supporting the Albanian leaders of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church. 

Communist period marked a dark period for the religious life of Albanians. Under the Marxist and Lelinist doctrine which proclaimed secularism and blamed religion as the main source of impoverishment of people, the communist government attempted to create a generation of atheist youth and in 1968 ordered the infamous destruction and demolition of all religious cults. All churches, mosques and masjids were shut down and the clergy were either sent to prison or executed. For the first time in its history Albania proclaimed to be the only atheist country in the world, which was extremely shocking considering the glorious religious past of this country. Every religious feast and celebration was forbidden, and only a few non-institutional pagan rituals were allowed as they were thought to be in the keeping with the national cultural heritage. In the meantime, people of all beliefs practiced both their religious and pagan rituals secretly and managed to keep alive some portions of the spiritual culture, but most of it was sadly lost forever. After the fall of communism the revival of religious life started again in 1991.  

Nevertheless, despite the turmoil of our history, there is one undeniable aspect that marks Albania as an extremely unique country, the religious tolerance. In a land where there are four prevalent religions, faiths have always co-existed in complete harmony. This harmony can be attributed partially to the sense of pragmatism that has characterized Albanians in the course of history and partially to the common pagan tradition. Pragmatism made Albanians tolerant towards each other’s differences and beliefs, and helped them set the blood relations and family ties as their main priority. In this way, inter religious relations helped to create stronger bonds among the communities, while finding common grounds in the pagan traditions of their religious practices. Thus, paganism which is still present to this day, played an important role in defining a strong unified cultural identity of Albanians. Therefore, always in times of crisis Albanians have put their nationalistic and ethnic needs before their religious differences, which is best illustrated in the final line of the patriotic poem “O MojShqypni” by the Albanian Renaissance poet and intellectual, Pashko Vasa (1825-1892).

"Churches and mosques you shall not heed / The religion of Albanians is Albanism".

This particular verse articulated in the most succinctly poetic way the whole ethnical and traditional philosophy of Albanians. So much so that it immediately became the official motto of the Albanian renaissance movement for liberation, which is still alive today.

A Yesterday and Today