Leke Tasi has been deputy director of the Albanian government's Office for Religions since its creation in 1992. From 1946 to 1967 Tasi was a State Radio Orchestra Cellist in Communist Albania. Abandoning his musical career, he became a laborer in 1967. Then in 1975 he was exiled to a remote village because he was a suspected “enemy of the people.” Since returning to Tirana in 1990, Tasi has exhibited paintings and written for Christian journals. Tasi, who is also a member of Tirana's Orthodox Cathedral Council, recently spoke with the Register.

Register: Recent months have brought growing tension between Albania's conservative government and former communists overalleged attempts by President Berisha to monopolize power. How have the tensions affected the country's religious communities?

Tasi: Religious freedom is permanent and complete now, and no one is afraid to profess their faith. The State and government guarantee this freedom, although lack of funds and relevant laws means they cannot help the churches in practice. In fact, this lack of legal regulation is a realistic option, since certain extreme tendencies in our country would favor a law which impeded religious activities. We should remember that religious life is also largely unregulated in the United States.

Five years after the fall of Albania's exceptionally brutal communist regime, the country's traditional religious breakdown— 70 percent Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox, 10 percent Catholic—is now clearly outdated. How have the three confessions contributed to the recovery of national identity?

Catholic priests were playing a small but important role in Albanian culture as early as the 16th century. In the south, the Orthodox clergy translated the Bible, and promoted Albanian identity within the predominant Orthodox culture of Greece. When Albania became independent in 1912, the Orthodox Church was required by its canons to become autocephallous, or selfgoverning. This helped create a new national consciousness.

Albania's mostly Sunni Muslims were more backward. But followers of the Bektashi branch of Islam, mostly found in the south, fought for independence and fostered Albanian patriotism. In the Albanian-inhabited Kosovo region of neighboring Yugoslavia, the Serbs tried to destroy this identity by turning local Muslims into Muslimani, as in Bosnia. But their efforts never succeeded. These respective contributions are all remembered today.

The Orthodox Church has been at the receiving end of bitter disputes since the June 1992 appointment of a Greek national, Anastasios Yanulatos, as its first post-communist archbishop. Aren't religious affairs in danger of becoming a focus of popular conflict?

My own Office has received several drafts for a new religious law, containing both hidden and overt obstructions to religious life. But in November 1994, when citizens voted in a referendum to reject a new constitution, one reason was that it contained a clause requiring all religious leaders to have been Albanian citizens for 20 years. In reality, Anastasios is an enlightened person, who has played a key role in the Church's recovery and the renewal of ties with other Orthodox communities. But when cross-border relations with Greece deteriorated three years ago, opponents of the Democratic Party and pro-Western tendencies found a pretext for acting against him.

But President Berisha himself has criticized Anastasios's appointment, and warned that his presence in Albania should be regarded as provisional only.

I repeat, Anastasios has done very valuable missionary work. As a former vicechairman of the Conference of European Churches, he has contacts with Roman Catholics, Anglicans and others, and has helped make our Church known and accepted abroad. He is also respected in Greece, and helped ensure humanitarian treatment for Albanians working there. This makes him an ideal person to help bring Albania into the European fold. Albanian believers have only one wish— to see their Church re-established. Very few resisted Anastasios's appointment.

The main opposition was led by a Muslim ex-communist parliamentarian, who tried to resurrect the idea of an exclusively Albanian national Church associated with the early Twentieth Century nationalist leader, Bishop Fan Noli.

It's true that President Berisha imposed a theoretical time-limit and said the archbishop's presence should be seen as provisional. But Orthodox canons say that, once enthroned, a bishop cannot be dismissed except by his own free will or in case of scandal. Anastasios responded to the President's statement with the words, “We are all provisional on this Earth.” In reality, Berisha has been one of Anastasios's main supporters. He visited him at Christmas and Easter, and put his appreciation on record.

Aren't you painting too rosy a picture of the Albanian government's stance? Last January, the government was accused of confiscating 20 churches, mostly Orthodox.

The main object of these complaints was the Orthodox monastery of Our Lady at Adenitsa, outside Tirana. After the ravages of Ottoman and communist occupation, very few centers like this survive. So when the monastery was returned at the Church's request, along with other communist- confiscated buildings, the Technical Institute for Monuments proposed that they should not be used until their historic and cultural value had been protected. This provoked an outcry from some Orthodox intellectuals. But Archbishop Anastasios simply asked Berisha to overturn the Institute's ruling— and the President did.

Looking at your own background, how did your personal sufferings influence your attitude to Church affairs?

My father, a supporter of Bishop Fan Noli, fled to Greece in 1924 after King Zog's return to power, and only came back to Albania in 1941. He was appointed deputy governor of Kosovo, but was ousted by the Italians and imprisoned for 20 years by the communists. He died in 1966, 18 months after his release. Two of my uncles were jailed too—one died in prison in 1961. My brother served seven years for belonging to an “anti-Communist group”; and my sister was sentenced to eight years for making “false statements.”

My sister was jailed again in 1979, four years after my family was exiled from Tirana. She failed to applaud when she was accused of “bad attitudes” at one of the village meetings which were regularly convened to denounce “enemies of the people.” Locals attacked our house and smashed the windows. And when we failed to turn up for work, the police came and arrested my sister—they had wanted to imprison her anyway. She came home in 1982 under an amnesty plan. Her eyesight was damaged.

You were also a musician and artist. Was it possible to be creative under such rigid, terrifying conditions?

I gave up my job as a cellist in 1967 and spent the rest of the communist period as a manual laborer. I continued to paint secretly. But it was dangerous to seek recognition as an artist, since then one became known. At my last exhibition in 1966, the Albanian premier rejected my three pictures during the preview.

Artists and writers adopted a servile attitude to communism. Even the works of Albania's best-known literary figure, Ishmael Kadare, show this clearly. Much of Kadare's work is good technically. But true humanity in art and literature must reveal the complexity of things, while also following clear criteria and maintaining a positive, self-confident attitude. Nietzsche, for example, was anti-religious; but his approach to religion can be appreciated since it was clear and consistent. Awriter who merely changes according to circumstances lacks character and value.

You also remained a religious person, even though all religion was outlawed in 1967 when Albania was declared the world's “first fully atheist state.”

Although all places of worship were closed in 1967, some priests continued to wear vestments secretly at home. I myself risked severe punishment by listening to religious services on foreign radio stations. I even translated a catechism and history book for Orthodox Christians, though these have yet to be published.

Against this background, it is a great joy to see religious practices reviving, especially among the young. Paradoxically, the changes in thinking may have been relatively easy in Albania. Unlike in neighboring Yugoslavia, very few people retained any illusions. The very harshness of Albanian communism made its disappearance all the quicker. American friends tell me ritualistic religion is dying out. But if properly directed, ritual can stimulate a deep response from the heart.

Some say the idea of “religious revival” is fraught with dangers. Bosnia also had a deep-rooted tradition of Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims living side by side.

Albania has always been, and will continue to be, an example of harmony. This is a source of national pride. It's true that Bosnia also had religious communities coexisting as national groups. But religious pluralism has brought only positive results in Albania. Of course, rival political factions are full of animosity for each other here too—and at times the feuding has painted a primitive picture of Albania. But the only attempts to politicize religious divisions have come from crypto-communist and nationalist groups hoping to create instability. In the 19th century, it was said that the real Albanian religion was “Albanian-ness.” This is true today too. And it ensures that religious identities cannot be used in a negative way. In our new Parliament, only arguments will be valid, not religious loyalties.

—Jonathan Luxmoore