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As mass numbers of Orthodox Albanians embraced Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries, a significant number also entered the Catholic Church, particularly in the Italian-dominated regions of the Adriatic coast. Franciscan and Jesuit schools educated community leaders and encouraged a distinct Albanian identity previously suppressed.

In 1744, Orthodoxy received a boost with the establishment of the New Academy in the city of Voskopoja. This Greek-speaking center of learning, the only institution in the Balkans to possess a printing press, dominated the intellectual life of Albanian, Greek and Slavic communities through the beginning of the 19th century.

A concerted effort in the 19th century to develop a written form of Albanian coincided with a European-wide resurgence of nationalism and ethnic identity. Ironically, most of the linguistic efforts on behalf of the Albanians were undertaken by Greek Orthodox priests and monks, who often transcribed various Albanian dialects with the aid of Greek letters.

During the last decades of the 19th century, an Albanian nationalist movement gathered steam, prompted to a considerable extent by Albanians living in Egypt, Romania and the United States. One such figure, Theophan (Fan) S. Noli (1882-1965), a Harvard-educated writer, composer and politician, came to the United States in 1906 with the express intention of organizing immigrants to work for the Albanian national cause.

After his ordination to the priesthood in Boston in 1908, Father Noli translated the Divine Liturgy into Albanian. He celebrated the liturgy in the Albanian vernacular for the first time among the Albanian immigrant communities in the United States, moving on to Europe in 1911. When Albania achieved its independence from the dying Ottoman Empire in 1912, Father Noli returned and entered parliament. In addition to his efforts to advance the Albanian nation, Father Noli worked with Albanian nationalists, Orthodox and Muslim, to set up an independent Orthodox Church.

The modern era. In 1922, a government-sponsored congress established such a church despite the objections of the ecumenical patriarch. Soon thereafter, the Serbian Orthodox patriarch consecrated Father Noli (who also served as Albania’s foreign minister) as the metropolitan archbishop of Durrës, in effect, the senior bishop of the new autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania. A year later, Metropolitan Noli led a successful coup against the government, becoming the nation’s prime minister as well.

The sudden rise of Metropolitan Noli ended just as quickly. Albania’s relations with neighboring Greece, as well as the church’s ties to the ecumenical patriarchate, soured. In addition, his reform-minded policies earned him the enmity of many Muslim landowners. Six months after his dramatic rise to power, Metropolitan Noli fled into exile. He returned to the United States in 1932 and led the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese of America until his death in 1965.

While Fan Noli’s efforts for church and state exacerbated tensions between Albanians and Greeks, he demonstrated that to be Albanian and an Orthodox Christian were not mutually exclusive. Today, despite the enormous generosity of Greek Orthodox Christians, who have largely financed the restoration of the Orthodox Church of Albania, ethnic, political and social problems remain.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Church history Albania Balkans