Consequence of the declaration of Albania as an ‘atheist state’ in 1967
A photograph of a painting in the Gjirokaster Castle Museum gave rise to some thoughts about religion.
The painting (above) was created in 1975 by M Jorgji. Unfortunately, to date, I have no more information on the artist. Neither do I know whether the painting still exists and if it does where it might be – I’ve only seen a photograph of it.
In 1967 the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania declared itself an ‘atheist state’ and what followed was an anti-religion campaign – and this painting is all part of that propaganda war.
So before going any further it will be important to put the images and message in this painting in context.
The words on the red banner at the top state, in Albanian;
Gjithe Partia dhe vendi duhet te ngrihen ne kembe, te djegin mezjarr e t’i kepusin koken cilido qe merr neper kembe kighin e shenjte te Partise per mbrojten e te detyrave te grave dhe vajzave
this translates, into English, as;
The whole Party and the country must rise to their feet, burn fiercely and behead anyone who tramples on the sacred law of the Party for the protection of the rights of women and girls
Although the banner doesn’t state specifically this is particularly directed against the Orthodox Church – although it could just as well as have been directed against the Catholics or the Muslims, the other two religions/versions of the mystical ‘faiths’ that existed in Albania at the time.
We know it’s the Orthodox Church on trial as, slightly separated and alone, in the centre of the painting is an old, partially bald, bearded priest dressed in a black cassock. He’s lacking his hat which such priests are normally seen wearing whilst in public – all religions have their crazy dress quirks. His lack of a hat indicates a lack of status in the community in which he sits and who all look at him in destain.
Because this attack on the ‘church’ is directed against the Orthodox Church we can assume that we are probably in the south of the country – the Catholics were more dominant in the north, centred around Shkodra (and were more friendly to the Nazi invaders in the 1940s). As I’ve seen this image in Gjirokaster it’s possible that the event is depicted as taking place there or at least in the southern part of the country, although kapart from the stone arch (typical of Gjirokaster) I can’t see any direct references to the city.
Although there are not only women surrounding the disgraced priest they are dominant in the image, which fits in with the slogan on the banner. The abusive priest is being faced by the women he (or his homologues) have abused in the past. In 21st century parlance this priest is facing his ‘#MeToo’ moment.
So how are we supposed to react to this image. Do we side with the ‘vulnerable’, dejected old man who sits head-bowed, alone and separate from the rest of the people? Or do we side with the mass of women who obviously have a grievance with what he has done in the past? Obviously, the message on the banner and the overwhelming presence of women and girls suggest that the priest is not the victim but the perpetrator who has, finally, been brought to book.
And that shouldn’t be a surprise. For centuries, no millennia, those who hold religious office have used the so-called uniqueness and privilege of their position to abuse those who are powerless for their own selfish and puerile ends under the guise of exceptionality. It was happening all over the world in all those ancient societies which weren’t even aware that other cultures, doing the same, even existed.
Theocratic societies followed the same path of the abuse of power wherever they sprouted – and they sprouted everywhere. And everywhere they existed girls and young women would have been their principal (but not only) target.
In European societies we only have to look at the activities of the various brands of Christianity and their abuse of power with the likes of their witch-hunts and Inquisitions. The two main streams of the so-called ‘Christian’ faith – the Catholics and Protestants – ‘threw stones’ at each other but, in reality, they were both as vile as each other.
We don’t have to look too deeply to see that this situation has been going on, continuously, for centuries. The abuse scandals which single out those in the religious community, of whatever colour, appear on an even daily basis. And those are not just historical abuses that had been hidden by the various hierarchies but are continuing to this day. With Islam as we are presented with their abuses on a daily basis, whether it be in countries where they are the dominant religion (e.g., Afghanistan) or in western European countries where ‘Christianity’ might be dominant (so-called ‘honour’ killings).
Many religions argue the ‘bad apple’ gambit – it’s not the faith itself, it’s bad practitioners of that faith. But that doesn’t accept that all religions are a power structure that seeks to maintain the status quo. For all the cosmetic changes that might have been made in recent years that structure has not, is not now and will not, in the future, change substantially. That’s the same for all the Abrahamic faiths but it’s not so different in those more ‘esoteric’ religions of the east. It’s all about power.
Whereas capitalist societies are quite harpy to live with even the ‘bad apples’ – after all, capitalism is all about abuse of the poor by the wealthy and powerful – the socialist society that the Albanian Party of Labour sought to create between 1944 and 1990 decided that such stupidity, ignorance and backward thinking needed to be, had to be, challenged. Hence the atheism campaigns and the likes of this painting.
Ultimately that particular campaign wasn’t a success. Why is something that needs to be studied in order to learn the lessons for the future.
In present day (2020s) Albania there are more religious buildings being constructed than you can shake a stick at. Whether there’s the population to ‘justify’ such a vast number of places is debatable. I’ve yet to see, anywhere in Albania of whatever variety of metaphysical thinking, that the masses are flocking to the various ceremonies that take place on a daily/weekly basis.
Yes, you’ll go into a catholic church and see someone praying for some higher being to come up with a miracle and to provide the wherewithal to pay the bills that the present capitalist society in Albania fails to produce. But do they really believe? Or is it just being used as a crutch for the weak?
Historically religion has been crucial for colonialist and imperialist expansion. In Central and South America it was said that ‘When the Europeans came we had the land and they had the cross. Now we have the cross and they have the land’. The Catholic Church followed an explicit policy of the ‘extirpation of idolatry’ in South America which meant the forced conversion (or death) of the ‘heathens’ and the physical destruction and annihilation/suppression of anything that was sacred to the indigenous peoples. As had been done with Roman structures in Europe the religious centres/locations in a country such as Peru had churches constructed on them (a clear show of who was in control and who held the power) or they were destroyed – such as particular rock formations or fountains, for example, which were the sacred places of a non-monotheist culture such as that of the Inca.
And this wasn’t just something that occurred in the early days of colonialism in Peru. Prior to the visit of the fascist pope Karol Woytyla, in 1985, a large cross was constructed in the area of Sacsayhuaman in the hills above Cusco. Here was a modern day example of ‘extirpation’ with the sinking of a Christian symbol into the heart of a pre-Columbian site.
But it wasn’t just the Catholics who carried out this cultural vandalism and destruction of anything that was considered ‘uncivilised’ in the pre-colonial world. Although known about for centuries the forced assimilation of indigenous children through their ‘education’ in religious schools – which sought to inculcate European values into the conquered peoples – also included the murder and secret burial of countless indigenous babies and children. This genocidal approach to the original population of the colonial countries is now being unearthed (literally) in countries as diverse as Ireland, Canada and Australia.
So really, when we consider the anti-clerical campaign in Albania from 1967 to 1990 the question we should be asking is not ‘why did it happen?’ but ‘why didn’t it happen elsewhere?’