Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Albanian 'Saints' Flourish
"For five years I have wanted a child, " said Sanie Mataj, a woman from the northern district of Mat who now lives on the outskirts of the Albanian capital, Tirana.
"I have left much money with the saints but am still not pregnant. I keep the things they give me under the pillow, and I pour holy water in the cooking. I just hope I will have a child one day."
Sanie holds out a letter written in an unknown script, which is neither Arabic nor Turkish. Thousands of Albanians like her are seeking help from so-called 'saints' - Albanian faith-healers - or from members of other sects that have flourished in post-communist Albania, a land where religion was banned before 1990.
For a quarter-of-a-century Albania was a strictly atheist state and the country's churches and mosques were mostly destroyed by the communist regime after 1967.
'The long transition process in our country has created a kind of chaos in understanding reality and its perception,' said Edmond Dragoti, a psychologist, who describes the phenomenon as a form of 'collective madness'.
The difficult progress from communism to a market economy in Europe's poorest country has pushed many people into the arms of saints and other religious sects, in the search for inner peace and a solution to life's problems.
Little attention was paid to these sects a decade ago. But recently the country's Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic and Bektashi leaders have become more concerned. The deputy head of the Muslim community, Selim Stafa, insists Albania has no need for the saints. "They are deceivers," he said. "We have urged people not to believe their lies. Such people have no links to the Koran, even if they base their cures on it."
After the period of anarchy in 1997, when many people lost their life savings in bogus 'pyramid' investment schemes, the numbers joining sects rapidly increased.
They operate throughout the country but are concentrated in Tirana, home to about one-third of Albania's population. Most are based in the city's outskirts. Four male and two female 'healers' in Tirana, for example, are known to receive about 150 people a day each from all over the country.
Their technique is to communicate with a saint, after which they frequently shake, faint, go blank or go into a trance. For their cures, they usually massage the patients, murmur prayers and give their clients items such as holy water or olive oil.
The healers do not bluntly solicit payment but people know they are expected to pay. Most started their operations without a penny but have became rich over the years. One young woman, who suffered from sleep deprivation, presented a gold necklace and 5,000 leks ($35) to a healer known as the 'Hand of God'.
She was one of scores of people who later sued the healer, a man who earned enough income from his services to advertise them on private television. Earlier this year, as his situation became difficult, he fled Albania for Germany.
There are five main religious sects in Albania and their followers include intellectuals alongside low-income workers. One of the leaders is known as Eleonor. A former worker in a textile mill in the Tirana suburbs, she organised a lottery during the communist era in which the prize was a television set, an enormous luxury at that time.
Eleonor then claimed she encountered a saint, named Abdyl Qesaraka, after which she began publicly demonstrating her techniques of fainting and shaking. In 1993, she built a temple in Selite, near Tirana, divorced her husband and left relatives to support her three children. One of her followers, a student called Drin, a graduate in theatre production, used to open the way for her, bowing and shouting "Saint Eleonor is passing - those who come to me may believe in any saint they want".
In April, when the courts ordered her to leave her home because two other families owned the land, 60 people, including several prominent public personalities, signed a petition of protest to the government. Eleven of her believers, including a law professor, went on hunger strike until a compromise was struck with the landowners.
"Albanian society is in a traumatised state and the saint's temple is a place to go to escape this trauma,' said Ahmet Pasha, a well-known actor. Another supporter, the former culture minister and writer, Teodor Laço, who chairs a small political party, said Eleonor possesses "communicative abilities with the cosmic dynamic waves of dead saints".
The famous prize-winning writer Ismail Kadare says her followers manifest a certain 'light-mindedness' but declines to elaborate further. Dritero Agolli, another well-known writer, says he is an atheist but has visited Eleonor with his wife. "I do not want to prejudge the others," he said, " but I know they find a spiritual calmness there because she organises many activities."
Some psychologists attribute the intellectuals' backing for the saints to an identity crisis that has followed the collapse of communism. After discovering that their life's work was an illusion, the theory goes, and on being confronted with the brutality of a market economy which they found hard to cope with, they have turned to the illusions offered by the sects.
"I find peace, and the truth of this world," said a television reporter who recently joined a sect. "I found my life partner and am sure he will never betray me during our marriage as so many others do."
The Albanians thought the market economy would be a paradise compared to their old communist regime. Reality has taught them otherwise.
Alma Çupi is a journalist with the Albanian daily newspaper Albania.
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