Albania celebrates the beatification of 38 Catholic martyrs

SHKODER, Albania (AP) — Thousands gathered Saturday in Albania to celebrate the beatification of 38 Albanian Catholic martyrs executed or tortured to death during the former communist regime.

In April, Pope Francis officially recognized as martyrs Archbishop Vincens Prenushi and 37 other priests who died in prison or were murdered from 1945 to 1974 by the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s regime, which banned religion in 1967 and persecuted its leaders and believers. During Francis’ visit to Tirana in 2014, big posters of the 38 clergy were placed along the Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard in Tirana, the capital.

On Saturday, up to 20,000 people attended a Mass at the Shen Shtjefni cathedral in the city of Shkoder, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Tirana, together with five cardinals and senior Albanian government officials. The few thousand inside the cathedral were outnumbered by the many thousands surrounding it.

The Rev. Ernest Simoni, 88, named recently as a cardinal by Francis to honor his suffering in prison, held a box with the bones of ten martyrs at the Mass.

“Today’s beatification of the 38 martyrs is the reward form God to all those living in this world and assisting the poor. It is a reward for us, the people and the whole world,” he said.

People heard how the martyrs were tortured to death or executed, always praying for God and pardoning their murderers. One female teacher died wrapped in a sack simply because she reminded her students of the presence of Christ. All died shouting “Long live Christ the King! Long live Albania! We forgive those who kill us.”

After Hoxha’s regime banned religion, churches, mosques and other places of worship were used as shopping centers, sports halls or theaters.

The beatification ceremony was held in Shkoder, because that is where, just prior to the fall of the communist regime in 1990, the first public Mass was held. The cathedral served as a sports hall after religion was banned.

In September, Albanians also celebrated the canonization of Mother Teresa, born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu of Albanian parents.

Now Albania is a model for interfaith harmony, with a Muslim majority and Orthodox and Catholic communities among its 3.2 million people.