“The smaller cage is the better cage”: What has China to do with Albania?

The decades-long persecution of the Catholic Church in Albania by the Communist government provides a significant case for the Holy See to ponder.

(CNS photo)

There are two lions in the world today/
One in Asia and one in Europe, and Mao Zedong in China/
And our Enver in Tirana

This popular couplet illustrates the friendly relations between Albania and China, which lasted for seventeen years (1961-1978), when Albania broke up relations with China and was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the Communist and Western world.

But, what has China to do with Albania? Tirana with Beijing? Mao Zedong with Enver Hoxha?

More than one might imagine: the building of socialism that would lead to Communism, the Cultural and Ideological Revolution, and suppression of religion, to mention some highlights in the Sino-Albanian relationship. After Mao Zedong, otherwise known as Chairman Mao, unleashed the Cultural Revolution in China in 1965, Albania’s Communist leader Enver Hoxha launched his own version of Cultural and Ideological Revolution. Following Chairman Mao’s model, Hoxha reformed the military, government, and economy. Military ranks were abolished and a system of political commissars was introduced in the army. Fighting against the bourgeois remnants and a white-collar mentality, salaries of mid- and high-level officials and intellectuals were slashed, and people were required to work in the factories and in agriculture. Collectivization of private property, farms, and husbandry spread to even the most remote regions of Albania. For Mao, as for his satellite Hoxha, the Cultural and Ideological Revolution became a deadly weapon to regain total control and exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat all over the country.

Hoxha’s Cultural-Ideological Revolution instituted a reign of terror over dissident intellectuals, educators, writers, artists, and the Catholic Church—especially Catholic leaders and clergy. This Chinese-style reign of terror and persecution reached its peak in 1967 when Albanian authorities conducted an unprecedented campaign to eradicate religion from the country, claiming that the “reactionary religion” had been cause for division among Albanians and had kept the country “backward”. Churches, mosques, monasteries, seminaries, and religious-run schools were closed and then either destroyed or repurposed into warehouses, theaters, and gymnasiums. The campaign culminated in Albania becoming the world’s first atheistic state in 1967, applauded as Hoxha’s greatest achievement.

Albania was one of the Communist countries behind the Iron Curtain where the Holy See’s Ostpolitik principles for achieving partial and fast solutions were not applied. This actually served well for the preservation of the faith of the Catholic Church and the credibility of Catholic clergy among the people of Albania. Although Catholicism is a minority religion in Albania, the severe persecution endured during Communism elevated the status of the Catholic Church among Muslims, Eastern Orthodox, and even atheists. The Communist persecution in Albania was so radical that even Sunni Islam, Bektashi, and Eastern Orthodox religious leaders who made “deals” with the government and were nationalized did not escape persecution, even though—to take up language used now to describe the current situation in China— their “cages were bigger.” Instead, the Catholic Church in Albania became the twentieth-century Church of the catacombs: the cage got increasingly smaller, but the faithful became more faithful and the faith grew stronger. Endurance and perseverance won in the end. The Church was alive after five decades of persecution. As Tertullian wrote in the late second century: the blood of martyrs became the seed of Christians.

Before Hoxha’s regime reached its goal in 1967—the extermination of religion, especially Catholicism, and making Albania the first atheistic country in the world—from 1944 to 1948 the Communist government’s focus was to create a National Albanian Catholic Church. It would have no connections to the Holy See or the Pope; bishops and priests would be ordained under government auspices. This, of course, sounds quite similar to the current situation in the People’s Republic of China and the negotiations with the Vatican. How was the nationalizing platform applied in Albania? In May 1945 the Apostolic Delegate to Albania, Archbishop Leone G.B. Nigris, was expelled from the country. Then the regime summoned the Metropolitan Archbishop of Shkodra, Northern Albania, Primate of the Church Gasper Thaci, and the Archbishop of Durres Vincent Prendushi, demanding they sever any relations with Rome, establish a new Albanian National Church, and give the Catholic Church’s allegiance to the Communist regime.

In exchange for the deal, Hoxha promised his government’s “conciliatory attitude” and dialoguing with the Church. Thaci and Prendushi refused to cooperate and never entertained the idea of separating from Rome—and they paid with their lives for their disobedience. As the Iron Curtain was descending over the continent (as Winston Churchill declared on March 5, 1946) further restrictions were enforced upon the Church: under the motto “Religion is Reactionary,” the Albanian Political Bureau decided not to allow the religious to leave the country for theological training. Seminary education was to be taught by national, government-approved clergy and the theological curricula were required to have the government’s seal of approval. Courses and theological-academic curricula in religious run schools, including the Albanian Pontifical Seminary, were required to  follow “the party’s line.” But there was more infiltration: the government and the party officials would choose “the right” candidates for seminary training and religious vocations. Obviously, those individuals who had shown loyalty to the Communist regime were chosen to pursue seminary training, so the government planted spies among the clergy to undermine it from within.

When the first wave of Catholic clergy persecutions and executions had its effects, Enver Hoxha summoned Bishop Fran Gjini in Tirana and ordered him, as he had done in the past with Thaci and Prendushi, to severe ties to Rome and lead the Catholic population in professing allegiance to the government. Gjini became the substitute Apostolic Delegate. Hoxha threatened Gjini with persecution unless he led his flock to the government’s side. Fearing great pressure, Gjini tried to bring some reconciliation and started a dialogue with the government. He wrote an open letter to Enver Hoxha offering Church’s cooperation in “reconstructing the nation.” However, Hoxha ignored Gjini’s letter and arrested him on the charge of spreading anti-Communist propaganda and agitation. Gjini was executed in 1948 with eighteen other clergy and lay people.

Negotiations for a National Albanian Church resumed in 1949. This time the government strongly demanded a complete separation of the Albanian Catholic Church from the Holy See. In order to force an agreement, more clergy arrests were made. After lengthy and difficult discussions, a compromise was reached: the government gave the Church freedom to keep sovereignty in spiritual matters and to keep its links with the Holy See. But deception was on the way. The official Communist press Zeri I Popullit (The Voice of the People) falsified the agreement between Church and state and announced that the Catholic Church of Albania had severed all ties to the Holy See. The Catholic clergy felt deceived and betrayed by the government. They confronted the government emphasizing their loyalty and allegiance to the Holy Father and the Vatican. Meanwhile, the government used nationalism to keep discontent among people in check as it prepared the final blow against the Catholic Church.

The Holy See today knows what happened in Albania and how the Church became the Church of the catacombs and martyrs for almost five decades. The Albanian prelates never agreed to nationalize, or albanize, the Catholic Church; they refused to make deals or give any concessions to the Communist government. They stood up and paid with their lives for their loyalty to Christ and to the Holy Father. They did not apostatize. Their last words were “Long live Christ the King! Long Live Albania.”

Albania is one more lesson from history to consider before the disturbing deal is finalized between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Cardinal Agostino Casaroli’s Ostpolitik during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) did not quite make it to Albania. Casaroli’s modus non moriendi (way of not dying) became ars morendi (art of dying) for the clergy and the faithful who resisted and died for their faith in Albania. Their toils and innumerable sufferings in the concentration or re-education Communist camps were kept fresh in the minds and hearts of the believers and non-believers alike. The places of their deaths became Albania’s new shrines. The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, was with the people, suffering and martyred with them.

The Albanian Catholic Church never lost its credibility or let the faithful down by making deals with the government. It understood that the Communist government would betray it. If the Church would have nationalized, or albanized, it would not have been the universal Catholic Church anymore, but subservient to the Communist government and a department of the government. In the end, the smaller Albanian cage proved to be a far better cage.

More importantly, the Church evangelized by martyrdom, and produced “secret” martyrs. “How many today are Christ’s secret martyrs, bearing witness to the Lord Jesus!” commented Saint Ambrose, echoing Psalm 118. No deal with an atheistic Communism regime is ever a good deal. St. John Paul II, who knew Communism “in his bones”, would have never made any deal with the Communist persecutor. He was not afraid to stand up and to discontinue the Vatican’s Ostpolitik, inspiring his bishops to stand up to the Communists as the Albanian bishops did. The same with Benedict XVI, who specifically warned that “compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church” in his 2007 Letter to the to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China.

So, what has China to do with Albania? The persecution of the Catholic Church in Albania by the Communist government provides a significant case for the Holy See to ponder. Dialogue and  pastoral-soft, ambiguous approaches do not work in Communist countries such as the People’s Republic of China, where the dictatorship of the proletariat is at work. In these countries, it is likely that the smaller cage is the better cage.

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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 28 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.


  1. The author is spot on correct.
    The end game for the Chinese Communist Party is the neutering of the Catholic Church in China, if not its destruction.
    The pope’s sympathies toward socialism/Marxism blinds him to this end game….or perhaps there is no blindness at all.

  2. It is an excellent work.
    I want to extend my appreciation and thanks to Prof.Ines Angeli Murzaku and the editor for your insightful argument with a very much reasonable comparison between the two similar cases—the history that had happened in the Communist regime Albania and the ongoing reality that the Church in China has been under the cruel persecution and discrimination of the Communist regime Peking.
    The lessons continuously tell us that compromising lacking of common sense of history never works to the Communist regimes which acted/are acting with the twisted humanity and no sense of moral principle although it is as a diplomatic strategy. It is a painful lesson that the world has learned in the history and the Church can not step in the footstep of Bp. Gijni today toward the Communist regime Peking just as Cardinal Joseph Zen’s alarming.
    the fact of St. Mother Teresa’s family was a typical case of witnessing the inhumanness of the Communist regime in Tirana.
    Strongly recommend it to the friends in Rome and in Hong Kong who deeply care the Church under the Communist regime Peking.
    God bless you, Prof. Ines Angeli Murzaku.

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