August 25, 2015
The Greek Foreign Ministry on Sunday condemned what it called a “violent incident” at the church of Saint Athanas in the Albanian village of Dhermi, describing what happened as “unacceptable and contemptible”.
Construction police from the local Himara Municipality went to Dhermi on Friday to remove the concrete roof of the church, claiming it was an illegal build.
But the Orthodox Church of Albania, which has strong Greek support, called it an attempt to destroy the church and said that those involved “used violence against the priest and believers”.
It claimed that there had been officially-sanctioned attempts to carry out excavations at the church in a bid to find the grave of a Catholic missionary from the 17th Century.
The Albanian Foreign Ministry meanwhile described Greece’s statement as “interference in Albania’s internal affairs”.
Artan Shkreli, an advisor to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, said that local police had simply intervened to stop illegal construction at the site, which he said had “deformed” the church.
Shkreli claimed that the Church of Saint Athanas is a cultural monument in Albania and that the reactions against the intervention by the police were organised by the Greek minority group Omonia, which is known for its nationalistic stance.
“The illegal and illogical reaction from Omonia against the intervention of the Construction Police is linked to the fact that they deny the history of this country,” Shkreli said.
“The [17th Century] Basilian missionary Nilo Catalano, who opened the earliest Albanian schools, was buried in this church, amongst others,” Shkreli told local TV station A1 Report.
Albanian Orthodox Church spokesperson Thoma Dhima responded by saying that the church in Dhermi does not have cultural monument status and that it was built by the villagers in 1992 on the foundation of the old church. He described the police intervention as unlawful and said that he had filed charges at the prosecutor’s office.
Responding to Shkreli’s claims about Catalano, Dhima said that the missionary attempted to convince people in the area to become loyal to the Pope, but was rejected.
He said that Catalano “poured in plenty of money to buy” the locals’ faith, but was driven out.
The rivalry between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Albania is centuries old and is often mixed up with Albanian-Greek rivalry.
But as the dispute over the church illustrates, it still has the potential to cause serious disagreements between Albania and Greece.
In its statement on the row on Sunday, the Greek Foreign Ministry suggested that Albania’s EU integration process could suffer as a result.
“Greece will be at our neighbouring country’s side on its course towards Europe, on the condition, of course, that Albania fully meets all of its obligations provided for by international law and the European acquis [the body of law that needs to be met to secure EU accession],” the Greek Foreign Ministry statement said.