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In 730, in a move that would preoccupy church and state for more than a century, the Byzantine emperor, Leo III, banned the veneration of icons. This imperial decree inflamed passions and nearly dismembered the empire. It also placed Leo at odds with Pope Gregory III, who anathematized and excommunicated the emperor and his sympathizers a year later. In retaliation, the emperor confiscated valuable properties belonging to the papacy. And he unilaterally placed the Christians of the southern Balkans, southern Italy and Sicily under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople. Rome resented this loss of jurisdiction and refused to recognize its validity, sowing the seeds for the schism that would ultimately divide the churches of Constantinople and Rome.

Church of Ohrid. While the iconoclastic controversy raged, Bulgarian and Serbian princes vied for control of the Balkans, threatening Byzantine hegemony. The development of Bulgarian and Serbian states — aligned with the world of Byzantium, but frequently at odds with it — dates to this period. These political entities were not ethnic nation states as understood today, but realms that included diverse peoples, religions and tongues. The ancestors of the modern Albanians, first recognized as “Albanoi” in an 11th-century work by the Byzantine historian Michael Attaliates, were largely illiterate peasants who toiled the soil. Nevertheless, a significant number of men fought as soldiers, a few even ascended the ranks as generals or emperors.

In 1018, the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, reasserted imperial power in the Balkans. Among his many changes, the emperor established Ohrid — a major center for the non-Greek-speaking Byzantine world — as an autonomous archiepiscopal church under the ecumenical patriarchate. Basil also subordinated 32 ecclesiastical provinces to Ohrid, and defined the church’s eparchies, properties and privileges.

Basil’s archiepiscopal church of Ohrid gathered Albanian, Greek and Slav Christians under its mantle. It survived the Great Schism, which divided the Catholic West from the Orthodox East after 1054, Greek ecclesial dominance and ultimately the invasions of the Ottoman Turks beginning in the 14th century.

National Awakening. The Ottoman Turks abolished the church of Ohrid in 1767 and placed its eparchies under the Greek-controlled ecumenical patriarchate. While the church’s Slavic legacy survived, particularly in parishes with a Slavic-speaking majority, an Albanian identity (if one indeed existed) never developed.

Under Ottoman rule, Orthodox Albanians were most susceptible to proselytization by Muslims. The two primary dialects of Albanian, Gheg and Tosk, lacked an alphabet. This prevented a written transcription of Scripture, the lives of the saints and the Divine Liturgy — primary catechetical tools — into an Albanian vernacular. According to modern Orthodox authorities, however, a number of Orthodox Albanian families became kryptochristianoi (crypto-Christians in Greek). To retain their identity and faith, these Albanian families, such as the Tosks in the mountainous region of Spathia, adopted Muslim names and habits, retaining their Orthodox faith in secret. This phenomenon lasted until the late 19th century.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Church history Albania Balkans