MALBARDH, Albania: Perched up an Albanian mountain, the medieval church of St. Nicolas was rebuilt from a crumbling ruin with help from local Muslims after the fall of communism, a symbol of the religious tolerance Pope Francis will be celebrating here on Sunday.
Majority Muslims and the tiny Catholic and Orthodox communities all faced persecution under the ruthless regime of Enver Hoxha, who in 1967 declared Albania the first atheist country in the world.
Countless churches and mosques were destroyed at the time — as many as 1,820 Catholic and Orthodox places of worship according to the Vatican — with scores of clergymen executed or dying in detention.
Nobody in the Muslim village of Malbardh, 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Tirana, remembers exactly who built St. Nicolas church or when. Already in a poor state when the communists took power, it was left to crumble to ruins.
But after the fall of the regime in 1992, Malbardh’s Muslims took ecclesiastical authorities by surprise by asking together with their Catholic “brothers” for permission to rebuild the church on its foundations.
“They did not take us seriously. They thought we were trying to get noticed, but we wanted at all costs to rebuild this church,” said Hajdar Lika, a sprightly 77-year-old Muslim.