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News 22 Aug 13

Unholy Row Reignites Albania-Greece Tensions

The eviction of Orthodox clergy from a building in the southern town of Permet has reignited simmering tensions between Albania and Greece.

Besar Likmeta
BIRN
Tirana
Priest being evicted by security guards in the cuture palace turned into church in Permet | Photo by : Telnis Skuqi

Hundreds of Albanian migrants returning to Greece from holidays were denied entry at the border on Wednesday after a dispute erupted between Albania and the Orthodox Church, which is closely linked to Greece.

The tension rose after bailiffs backed by a security company last Friday evicted Orthodox clerics from a culture centre in the town of Permet on the border with Greece, which they have used as a church for more than a decade.

The clergy claim it was built on the grounds of a former church, which was destroyed when Albania’s former Communist regime outlawed religion in 1967.

On Monday, hundreds of Orthodox believers stormed the Communist-era building, reclaiming it for a few hours before police intervened.

“A security company paid by someone desecrated the Orthodox Church,” Orthodox Church head Archbishop Janullatos said in a statement.

“Are we in 2013, when we want to integrate into Europe, or in 1967, when the Communist Party thought that it could eradicate religion from the heart of Albanians?” he inquired.

The decision to evict the church from the building was based on a 2002 court order that had not been enforced for years.

The Albanian Autocephalous Orthodox Church is in theory an autonomous Albanian Church.

In practice, it is headed by Greek bishops, who are often perceived by the local public as acting in the interests of the Athens government.  

However, Albania is reluctant to antagonise Greece openly. The country is host to Albania’s largest emigrant community in Europe, and their remittances are a lifeline for Albania's weak economy, especially in the south.

Although Greece broadly supports Albania's goal of eventual EU membership, it routinely uses Albanian immigrants in Greece as pawns when the going gets tough.

On Monday, the Greek Foreign Ministry condemned the eviction in Permet and claimed that the consulate in Gjirokastra had been stoned, and that a member of the Greek minority had been attacked in the same city.   

Reacting to the Greek protest, the Albanian Foreign Ministry downplayed the incident at the consulate.

“According to preliminary investigations in the garden of consulate a small stone has been found, which is believed landed there due to friction with the tire of a passing car,” it said in a statement.

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