Τετάρτη, 24 Δεκεμβρίου 2014

Suffering and Resurrection of the Orthodox faith in the district of Korytsa / Korce

This article began as an effort to translate an old documentary film by Mrs. Maria Mavrikou into English in hope it would help our English-speaking readers understand the plights endured by our people in Enver Hoxja's Albania. This is by no means a political propaganda or an anti-communist crusade. 
All we want is to record the oral accounts of our people in Korce before they die away into oblivion. The documentary film was called ''Suffering and Resurrection of the Orthodox faith in the district of Korce''.


Suffering and Resurrection of the Orthodox faith in the district of Korytsa / Korce 

- Part I - 

Korytsa/Korce lies at the foot of the Morava mountain on the left bank of the Devoll river. It is surrounded by large, fertile valleys. A surviving codex mentions that from the 14th century to the 17th century, Korce was a small, insignificant village hidden in the shadow of the wealthy, nearby town of Moschopolis. However, Korce gradually became home to some commercial activity, as a result of being in the conjunction of the roads connecting Epirus with Macedonia and the Balkans. In 1670, it was elevated into an orthodox Bishopric by Archbishop Parthenios, himself originating from Korytsa. In 1796, after the destruction of Moschopolis, many wealthy Moschopolitans resettled in Korce transforming the town into a substantial center of commerce. Its many benefactors, people such as Baggas, Avramides, Tsitsas, Adam and others endowed their town with Greek schools, libraries, an orphanage, a hospital and other charity institutions. There were large parks, wide tree-decorated roads with beautiful mansions and a vivid Hellenic presence. The past wealth and artistic taste of Korce's inhabitants were attested in the five illustrious Churches of the town. Unfortunately, during the 50 years of Enver Hoxa's regime all this spiritual and cultural movement ceased. The town's mansions began to crumble and the Churches were demolished to the ground. All that remained of the town's metropolitan Cathedral of Zoodochos Pigi was four walls, later to be adjusted into a museum. The two bells in the yard is all that is left of the once imposing Church of Saint George. The demolition of Saint George took one whole month. In its place, the authorities built the Library of the Communist Party. From 1985 onwards, all religious icons that escaped fire and destruction were gathered in the museum. Many people were exiled, tortured and imprisoned for their religious affiliations. Korce, an old stronghold of the Orthodox Church, endured the persecutions thanks to the faith of its people and their struggles. 

-When they closed down all the Churches, I decided to save the icons, taking them home and hiding them. A man told on me and the police came. They arrested me, they searched my house and found all the icons, the crucifix and the priests' attire. Initially, they sentenced me to 28 years in prison. They later decided to execute me, but again changed the sentence into 25 years of imprisonment. At some point they took me to Baile and Spatz. Security agents came to Spatz and inquired me. They wanted to know what kind of person I was. I remained tranquil, because God says "the ones I love are the ones I test the most". He tested me and I didn't deny Him. The torments here in Korce... they tortured me heavily, they beat me up, they broke my teeth and hit me continuously with an iron stick on my kidneys. I now have only one kidney left. They tortured me to make me tell them on a secret group of faithful, but I told them nothing. I told the interrogator that I shouldn't condemn those people to suffer along with me, for they had done nothing wrong. Religion is a matter of personal faith. Every man believes in God because he feels an inner need to do so, and not because of others. I asked that man:" have you read any Marxist books?". "Why do you ask?", he said. "Marx said that religion is a personal issue for each man". After that he stopped beating me. However, they broke my teeth and hit me on my kidneys, it hurt beyond description... those were torments of the most inhuman nature. I endured them all. The torturing would begin every day from 5:00 am to 12:00 a.m. I stayed five months in prison hospital, because of all the hitting and maltreatment in Spatz. Now let me tell you about the revelation I had in a dream. I was praying to God, to Saint Kosmas and Damianus and asked them "why won't you come and heal me? " It hurt so much. And one of them came, touched me here with his hand and when I woke up I had been healed. Saint Kosmas and Damianus were doctors in life. 

-Which church did you take the artifacts from?
-There were many churches in my village. I went to each one of them and salvaged everything I could. 

-Where did you hide them?
-In the ceiling above! All the icons in my village that weren't destroyed were sold abroad, mainly in France, Italy and some other places. 

-After all that you've been through, have you regretted it?
-Now that I'm out of jail, my faith is even stronger than before. I'm devoted to God with all my heart and soul.

Demetra Tsitsou and her sister Marika and Papa-Gache reflect on the terrible days of the persecutions, but also on their resolve to keep the flame of their faith burning at any cost. 

Demetra Tsitsou: When we heard the rumors that they were going to close down the churches, that they would destroy them… we didn't believe it at first. But then, we saw them invade one house after another, demanding the people to surrender all their icons. What terror and what despair! We wept! We would never surrender the icons! We were resolved to keep them! God gave us inspiration and courage to do so! My sister gathered all the icons, wrapped them in a blanket and took them to the basement. And we prayed in tears. The vigil flame was always lit -never out! We would put the icon at the window, during the night and hide it during the day. From 9:00 pm to 6:00 in the morning we would pray. How can I even begin to describe those horrible days and months, when we heard that they were going to seal the churches. We were terrified! Saint Charalambos veneration day was approaching. My sister and I decided to make Artos to honor the saint. We put five pieces of Artos on the table. So much emotion, so many tears and so much agony! Every time someone would knock on the door we would jump on our feet "They've come to take us!" I would say and my sister would reply "If they've come to take us, it will be for our faith in Christ. So let them come! After all, Isn't Christ we search for?" We would take our little icons and hide them on us. If they found out we would just tell them "Yes, we are Christians, no use denying it, so do what you think best"

Maria Mavrikou: Did the police ever come here to search? 

Demetra Tsitsou: We were known for our beliefs. We used to be members of the Church Choir. A friend of ours had a little statue of Christ, very beautiful from Italy! One day he came and asked us to hide it for him, for he was too afraid to keep it any longer. We would never decline such a request. We decided to hide it in our house, but where to hide it? We didn't know! We put it in a locker with an icon of Virgin Mary. One day the police came and asked "what's in there?" 

"Just books" we said! He opened the locker, and though he saw the icon he said nothing as if it wasn't there!

Locals of Bobostitsa celebrating Greek resistance day
against Mussolini's Italy
On the Southeast, just a few kilometers from Korytsa, one can find the all-green village of Bobostitsa. This is an orthodox village inhabited by Vlachs, who mainly live on agriculture and to a lesser degree on herding. Small piles of rocks, all that is left of the demolished church of Saint Petros and Pavlos. On the other edge, outside the village, lie the ruins of the once wealthy Monastery of Saint Nicholas from the 14th century. From here passed the large caravans travelling from Moschopolis to Macedonia and the rest of the Balkans. For this reason, the Monastery maintained a three-store building (hani) for the accommodation of the travelers. In the nearby meadows used to graze thousands of sheep belonging to the monastery. During the great persecution, the hani and the cells of the monastery collapsed. The church was turned into a greens-warehouse. The domes also collapsed; one or two wall-painting survived to remind us of the past beauty of the temple. The wise architects of the temple had provided for the acoustics of the room by engulfing clay pots inside carefully selected parts of the walls. Beneath layers of smoke -caused by man’s destructive rage and fire- transpire the figures of the Saints. Their beauty shakes us, veiling the roofless temple of Saint Nicholas in the cemetery of Bobostitsa. Paintings in two and three layers from different eras cover the derelict walls. Young Demosthenes and Mr. Sotiris, working together to maintain the churches of the village, seem emotionally moved as they take care of the wounded saints of Orthodox Christianity. They say that Bobostitsa used to have ten churches. It was fortunate that two small, tile roofed chapels escaped total destruction: the chapels of Saint Demetrius and of Saint Prodromos. These were built in the 13th century and then repaired and repainted in the 17th century. In the temple’s narthex, above the entrance, we can see traces of older wall-paintings.

Demetra Tsitsou: From a very early age, we loved music. And when we got these books, I read a chant from Vasileios the Great that says “there is nothing in this world that can revive the soul, give her wings, release her from earthly bounds, move her to philosophize about everyday vanities, more than the divine music”. When I read that I was thrilled, regardless if it was day or night, during social visits we would sing one or two chants, since all of Korytsa had kept God in its heart. And my sister Berta, had written countless notebooks with the invocations of Virgin Mary and when the churches were shut down she would go to every family that we knew and had asked us and she would distribute those chants in secret. 

Berta Tsitsou: We thank God even for the Occupation, for the Occupation brought us all closer, all our hopes were vested in God. And faith all over Albania became stronger. There never were so many people close to the church as there are now. 

Outside Korytsa, near Bobostitsa lies the village of Boria, the old Emporia. Only one church escaped destruction. It is the church of the Ascension of the Savior, built around 1300. It is cross-shaped with a dome. On the outside, it carries a polygonal arch ornate with bricks. The dome and the roof are covered with stone plates. Donor of the opulent –though timeworn through the centuries- hagiographies in the temple was "the humble bishop Nimphon", as we read in an inscription dating back to 1390. The donor is depicted holding in his hands the temple, while offering it to Christ. The iconographies in the narthex are posterior. They were recently cleaned and uncovered. Their beauty is impressive. There is a rare depiction of Virgin Mary in Heaven sitting with the Saints alongside the Robber. The outside walls are smoked by the candles lit by Christians who would secretly come and pray during nighttime in the years of persecution. The arrival of Archbishop Anastasios exhilarated the persecuted Orthodox Christians of Albania and filled them with hope. They realized that this arrival meant the revival of their Church. The Orthodox Church of Albania presents some peculiarities that differentiate it from all other Orthodox Churches. First of all, under the persecutions perpetrated by the previous regime, it had been completely destroyed. It has just been reborn in the recent few years. Secondly, due to the country's demographic particularity, it presents a multi-ethnic composition. It unites all the Orthodox citizens of modern Albania, albanian-speaking, greek-speaking, vlach-speaking and slav-speaking populations of various national orientations. Thirdly, it co-exists with other traditional religious communities residing in the same regions, without constituting the absolute majority neither a small minority within the country's population. Regardless of the religious background of their families, a large portion of the people are still atheists or simply "seeking". Tens of other religious groups are trying to derive followers. The next few years will be of crucial importance for the country's religious identity. The Orthodox Church will have to re-establish herself as soon as possible and in her best form. During the many decades of the persecutions, hundreds of churches were destroyed or turned into stables, store-houses, workshops, gyms and some few of them into museums. Most monasteries became military camps or were left in ruins. The passage of time and the indifference also contributed to the gradual collapse of those historic and religious buildings that hadn't been demolished by the authorities. One of the first priorities of Archbishop Anastasios in his struggle to revive the church was to find places of worship in the main cities and villages for the needs of his people. Those needs were many and urgent. (End of part I) ---

Suffering and Resurrection of the Orthodox faith in the district of Korytsa / Korce 

- Part II -

The building-construction program of the Church turned to four directions: 
1) The repair of every church that hadn't suffered any major damages during the years . To this day, dozens of temples have been repaired in Korce, the nearby villages as well as in every other area of Albania with a Christian-orthodox population. 
2) Secondly, the restoration and reinforcement of temples with more severe damages. This project demanded architectural advisement and large financial resources. 
3) Thirdly, the restoration of historical monuments of great artistic value. This procedure took even more time because of the need for special permits, scientific studies as well as specialized groups of experts. Until the end of 1996, twenty-six churches have been restored in the region of Korce and sixty-three churches all over Albania. 
4) Fourthly, the construction of new churches. In the region of Korytsa in specific twenty-nine-new temples have been built. In total, there have been 67 new temples all over Albania. 
5) Important ecclesiastical buildings, fully equipped to fulfill their role, constitute the most recent acquirement of the Church of Albania. In Korce more specifically, the metropolitan building has been reconstructed and has been turned into a spiritual center for the youth. 
Archbishop Anastasios, under very harsh circumstances, continues his efforts for the reconstruction of the Orthodox Church of Albania.

Marika Tsitsou: People would say "there is no way they are going to reopen the church" and I would always tell them "Of course it will reopen! God will see to it!" I had great faith and indeed it finally happened 
Maria Mavrikou: You prayed for it? 
Marika Tsitsou : Of course we did.! We would secretly hold liturgies every Saturday and on Sunday the three of us would take out the icons and light the candles. 
When they reopened the churches in our region, I cannot begin to describe to you what joy there was on that day. The entire Korytsa! It was in Agia Triada. We all worked together. Demetra here made the priest's attire. We had an old piece of cloth here and adjusted it. 
And the bell? We didn't have a bell either! Our nephew Christakis took the mortar, he tied it on a rope and started knocking it. When I first heard it, I said: "A bell? how can this be?". I ran and was astonished to see the mortar. It made exactly the same sound as a church's bell! 
Maria Mavrikou: How did you feel later, when you heard the sound of a real bell? 
Berta Tsitsou: Tears! We went there on that day, hanged the bell on a tree and the children started to sound it! Everyone held candles and wept! All of them! 
Demetra Tsitsou: It was in Agia Triada 
Marika Tsitsou : Children with candles all around. Even on trees! There were so many people! 
When the Archbishop attended the consecration of the church which is currently being built, we gathered and he delivered a speech. He said: "the circumstances are against us, but we have God on our side. With these very rocks that they threw to us, we are going to rebuild our church" For all the torments we went through, God compensated us with the presence of Anastasios. God will eventually make him a Saint. There is no other bishop like him. Do you know how it was made possible for him to come here in Albania? It's because of our prays from all over Albania. 
Papa-Gache: I'm very glad for his presence here. Without its Archbishop the Church is like a flock of sheep without its shepherd. Without a shepherd, the flock dissolves into random directions. The Archbishop is like a beam of light breaking the darkness. We are grateful to God for this. During the atheist regime, I prayed to God not to let me leave this world before I see the churches open and before I can be able to perform the liturgy once more. I'm really grateful. It took You a long time, but You didn't forsake us. 
During the first liturgy, which took place outdoors because of the lack of churches, the Archbishop ordained Ioannes Trebitska as Deacon, who is currently the vestry man of Albania. 
Berta Tsitsou: We all participated in the liturgies! Papa-Gache would make the ceremonies in secret, he would perform the weddings, the baptisms. Everything in secret. His wife would hide the icons within the laundry. Every Sunday morning he would shut all windows and doors and he would perform the ceremonies in secret, in secret, always in secret! Every time we go to Church we take a small part of God with us. Our Church was always very poor, and there were very few people. Now there are thousands of people every Sunday.

Church of Saint Nicholas - Moschopolis
Twenty five kilometers west of Korce, lies what remains of the once flourishing town of Moschopolis. It was founded in 1330, as a small settlement of Vlach shepherds, hence its first name "Voskopolis" (town of the shepherds). From the 17th century onwards, however, the town developed into a great trade and industrial center, renaming itself into "Moschopolis" (meaning in Greek, the land of prosperity). The commercial ties with Western Europe and the special privileges extracted from the Ottomans brought about great wealth and an unprecedented cultural rise/blooming among its citizens. The population of Moschopolis at its high-peak surpassed 60,000. With their financial robustness/wealth, the various guilds of Moschopolis founded orphanages, hospitals and schools. In addition, they founded a printing press in 1720, the only one in the European part of Turkey outside Constantinople/Istanbul. Moschopolis excelled as a center of Hellenic Education especially with its "Hellenic Frontistirion", which was later renamed into "The New Academy". The Codex of Moschopolis, contained the following text regarding its Academy: 

"..the prodigious Greek School constitutes the utmost adornment of the commonwealth, the harmony of the civilization, the light of the Church emanating from the first Light of the creation.."
''..το περίφημον Ελληνικόν Σχολείον ο άκρος στολισμός της Πολιτείας, η ευκοσμία των ηθών, το φως εκ της εκκλησίας, το επί το πρώτον φως ανάγον..''

Moschopolis was the native town of the great benefactor Simon, the leader of the Sinas family, and the founder of the Academy of Athens. In order to accommodate the crowds of the faithful of that time, Moschopolis had twenty-five illustrious churches. The town was suddenly destroyed by raiding clans of Muslims in 1769. It was destroyed again in 1916 with its multi-storey building burnt to the ground. Once again, the perpetrators were Muslim clans led this time by the Albanian nationalist politician Sali Butka. Nowadays there are only 5 churches left in Moschopolis bearing rare wall-paintings: The Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church(1712), Saint Nicholas(1720), Saint Michael(1722), Saint Athanasius (1724), the Prophet Elias Church(1724) and there is also the monastery of Saint John the Baptist. Saint Nicholas being the least damaged of the churches, currently serves as the local Metropolis. This church contains a substantial number of frescoes depicting more than 1000 saints. The chief painter of the church was David Selenitsa assisted by his apprentices Konstantinos and Christos. Their work was completed in 1726. Very impressive is the 2-meter-high image of the local benefactor and merchant Hatzigeorgis depicting him offering the temple to the enthroned Saint Nicholas. The great basilica of Saint Michael has a length of 21 meters and a width of 10 meters. The interior of the church was decorated with splendid wall-paintings dating back to 1721. Most of them were destroyed recently, in the summer of 1996 by students of an Islamic School operating under the surveillance of Saudi-Arabian preachers. "This unbelievable incident of the destruction of 23 rare frescoes in a historic church of Moschopolis, a monument of Civilization for Albania and for all of Europe, a destruction perpetrated by a group of young people, students of a religious institution is a sign that religious fanaticism may emerge in Albania too. What is even more tragic is that these splendid works of Christian art, which were respected even at the darkest times of an Atheist Dictatorship are now being destroyed at a time of Democracy. It is imperative that all the historic churches must be attributed back to the Orthodox Church of Albania, which is the one that created them and took care of them for centuries." (Message of Archbishop Anastasius of Albania regarding the desecration of Churches by religious fanatics in Moschopolis)

On their father's side hailing from Moschopolis, the sisters Demetra and Marika were devastated by the news: 
Marika Tsitsou: "You mean you saw it with your own eyes?" 
Demetra Tsitsou: "They were destroyed and you have pictures to prove it?" 
Maria Mavrikou: "Yes, the Archangels were destroyed" 
Demetra Tsitsou: "Those were masterpieces, such things should not be happening nowadays" 
Maria Mavrikou: "Why do you think they did it?" 
Marika Tsitsou: "Because they were told to do so" 

At the close of our second visit to her house, sister Demetra wanted to sing for us one last time, along with her beloved ones, a song she used to sing during the era of the persecutions. A few days later, she succumbed to her illness and left this world for her Great Journey. 

On the mountain high above, 
a deserted church stands alone, 
its bell never tolls, 
it has no chanter and no priest, 
a burning candle and a stone crucifix, 
the only piece of jewel the poor church holds.... 

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