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Origins. While little evidence survives, historians believe the Gospel arrived in what is today Albania by the middle of the first century. Among the first converts to the new faith were Roman soldiers from the eastern frontier of the empire. As they traveled west, so, too, did the Gospel. The Roman port of Dyrrhachium (now the Albanian city of Durrës) anchored the western terminus of the Via Egnatia, a route that linked cities and forts from Asia Minor and the Balkan interior to the Adriatic Sea and, by way of established sea routes and the Via Appia in Italy, ultimately to Rome.

In its composition, the early church in Dyrrhachium undoubtedly reflected the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman port. Martyrs and saints commemorated in the Orthodox calendar of saints, or menologion, include Greeks, Latins and Syrians. On 6 July in the year 98 A.D., one entry reads, “Asteios, bishop of Dyrrhachium, was anointed with honey and stung by bees,” dying for the faith. The following day on the calendar commemorates Peregrinus and other saints, “all of Latin origin,” who were drowned in the sea by order of the governor of Dyrrhachium.

Ecclesiastically, the church of the Balkan port was subordinate to the church of Rome via Thessalonica, the metropolitan church of the southern Balkans. Politically, the region changed hands at the end of the third century. To better manage the empire, then under siege by barbarian tribes, Emperor Diocletian partitioned it and placed Dyrrhachium and the core of the southern Balkans under the jurisdiction of the eastern emperor.

As the church evolved, the ethnically diverse Christian community of the southern Balkans gravitated to the culture, church and rites of the new capital of the Eastern Roman empire, Constantinople. Officially christened “New Rome,” the capital took on a distinct Christian identity after Emperor Theodosius I established Christianity as the state religion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 394. The “Byzantine” Christians of the southern Balkans, however, remained under the jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff.

Beginning in the sixth century, Slav tribes disrupted imperial Byzantine rule in the Balkans, invading the peninsula’s web of mountains and valleys, plains and streams. They drove out existing populations or suppressed those who remained. These tribes, which had formed loose federations, even reached Constantinople, storming its walls repeatedly. Eventually, the Slavs assimilated and embraced Christianity. Those who settled in the Balkan’s northern frontier (today’s Croats and Slovenes) adopted the Latin rites of Rome; those in the south (now the Albanians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs) embraced Byzantine forms.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Church history Albania Balkans