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Albania, which in 1967 became the world's first official atheistic state, is now fast becoming a model of religious growth and an example to the rest of Europe, according to a senior Orthodox official.

Georges Tsetsis, an Orthodox priest and former representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches, was speaking to Ecumenical News International (ENI) after accompanying Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos on his first visit to the Albanian Orthodox Church earlier this month. The Ecumenical Patriarch is the world's senior Orthodox Church leader.

Religious organizations were strictly forbidden under Albania's hard-line communism.

The Orthodox Church was officially re-established only in the early 1990s and had, Tsetsis told ENI, made "enormous strides" since then.

"When Archbishop Anastasios came to Albania [in 1991], the church had five old priests," Tsetsis said. "Now the church has 110 priests, many of them young. It has a brand new seminary with 100 students, male and female. Anastasios has built 72 new churches, restored 65 old churches and monasteries and repaired a further 130 church buildings. The Theological Academy of the Resurrection, which was located in rented rooms in a hotel, has had a brand new building of its own since 1997. The church also has its own high school, medical centers, kindergartens and other social institutions."

Both within Orthodox circles and in the worldwide ecumenical movement, Anastasios has earned a reputation as one of the most capable and spiritual of church leaders. This reputation was confirmed during the Kosovo conflict when, despite Serbian criticism, his church made major efforts to assist Muslim refugees flooding into his country from Kosovo.

However in 1992 ...

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