The Albanian communist regime declared the religion illegal and led a long campaign of oppression against Christian and Muslim believers, imprisoning and sentencing members of the clergy to death and persecuting their families, but some continued to practice their faith in secret.
"After the end of the war, the communists arrived carrying their destruction ... Our religion teachers were shot ... imprisoned ... they treated us like animals".
Father Ernest Simoni Troshani, an Albanian Catholic priest, remembers the period after the end of the Second World War in his country, when the regime led by Communist dictator Enver Hoxha began the repression of clergy and religious believers.
Since Troshani had kept in memory of US President John Kennedy recently assassinated in November of 1963, he was arrested on Christmas Eve and spent 28 years in prison.
Father Troshani was not the only religious figure to suffer serious repression under the regime. Catholic priests who dared to baptize children were persecuted, as were Muslim clerics protesting publicly against communism.
The suffering of these men was the result of the war waged against the religious of all faiths by the 'Labor Party' led by Hoxha under the slogan "Religion is the opium of the people" - a quote adapted from the writings of the communist philosopher Karl Marx.
In the 1976, the Party even declared Albania the first atheist country in the world, imposing the prohibition of religious belief in the Constitution and providing sanctions in case of participation in ceremonies and possession of religious books. Meanwhile, confidence in Hoxha, communism and the party was encouraged.
Through a propaganda system, well organized also through the mass media and films, the dictatorial state denigrated the religious, presenting them as negative social examples, at the service of the political forces of the West or even dangerous members of armed groups trying to take the power by force.
But despite the state's commitment to the destruction of religious institutions, the burning of sacred books, the imprisonment and execution of priests and imams, some Albanian families have continued to practice their faith in secret, at the risk of their lives.
Hoxha announces the prohibition of religion
The anti-clerical war began after the communists came to power in Albania in the 1945. The first targets, seen as a threat, were the Catholic religious, who had strong international ties and rejected communist propaganda.
The 6 February 1967 Hoxha gave a speech that officially launched the battle against "religious ideology". The speech was followed by a letter from the Central Committee of the Labor Party that read "Religion is the opium of the people. We must do our best so that everyone can understand it, even those who are poisoned (which are not few). We need to heal them. This is not an easy task, but not impossible ".
Political rhetoric and strong media propaganda pushed young people to target religious places. According to Museum of Memory, an online project of the Albanian Institute of Political Studies, 2.169 religious institutions were closed, including 740 mosques, 608 Orthodox churches, 157 Catholic churches and 530 among türbe (Ottoman style funeral mausoleums) e tekkes (convents of Muslims of Sufi belief). The cultural and historical heritage was destroyed along with them.
All religious beliefs were completely banned by the Constitution of the People's Republic of Albania in the 1976, nine years after Hoxha's speech.
The 37 article thus stated: "The state does not recognize any religion and supports and develops atheist propaganda to include people in the scientific-materialist view of the world."
The 55 article prohibited the creation of any religious organization.
Arrested "in the name of the people"
One of the most absurd cases of persecution was that of Father Ernest Simoni Troshani, now 90, one of the most respected Catholic figures in Albania.
"It was 24 December 1963 Christmas Eve, when, after Mass, four people came to me. Two of them wore military uniforms, the other two wore civilian clothes ", recalls Troshani.
"They brutally tied my hands behind my back, as if I were a dangerous criminal, and they said 'you were arrested in the name of the people', adding, 'You will be hanged because you told people and young people that if need, life must be given for Jesus Christ “. They added something about the mass I had held when Kennedy had been murdered. "
Troshani was sentenced to 25 years in prison, 18 of whom spent in the political prison of Spaç, in the north of the country, where prisoners were forced to work hard in the adjacent copper and pyrite mines.
Despite the ban, he continued to practice his faith in secret, holding mass and receiving confessions. Meanwhile, as state persecution extended to religious families, Troshani's relatives were placed under surveillance by the dreaded secret police, the Sigurimi.
Even when he was released from prison, Troshani was again arrested and sentenced to carry out heavy work on the country's sewerage system.
Ramadan behind bars
Albanian Muslim clerics were also subjected to oppression by the communist regime.
Mehdi Kraja, son of one of the most famous Muslim figures in Albania, Hafiz Ali Kraja, recalls how his father spent many years in prison after delivering a speech entitled "What is communism and its consequences for religion and the nation Albanian".
The speech meant that Hafiz Ali Kraja was immediately classified as an anti-communist and this forced him to hide with a family from the city of Scutari for about two years from the 1944 to the 1945.
He hid in a basement, from which he came out only after an amnesty was announced that promised: "All those who are wanted by the authorities will be spared of the death sentence and will go only to prison".
Hafiz Ali Kraja was then imprisoned for 25 years. He did not know, however, that in the years he was hiding his brothers had been tortured by the authorities to have his hiding place known. He was therefore surprised to find himself in jail too.
Kraja's children grew up without seeing him. "When my father got out of prison, my sister was afraid of not recognizing him. I saw my father at home for the first time at the age of 26 years, ”recalls Mehdi Kraja.
As relatives of the condemned Imam, Kraja's family was interned by the 1955 at the 1958 in Bajram Curri, in the far north of Albania.
Despite the repression, Kraja said his father was able to celebrate Ramadan in prison while his family followed Muslim cultural traditions.
Hafiz Ali Kraja was finally released from prison in the 1965, having stayed there for 19 years.
"I never saw my father at home"
One of the most tragic and absurd stories of communist persecution in Albania is that of Father Shtjefen Kurti.
Kurti was born in the 1898 in Kosovo, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. He studied in Austria and Rome and, after being ordained a priest, arrived in Albania, where King Zog granted him citizenship and support for his Catholic mission. His nephew Nicole Kurti reveals that he was the priest who had confessed Mother Teresa and Queen Geraldine in the royal court until the 1939.
But after the end of the Second World War, with Hoxha's Labor Party in power, Shtjefen Kurti was arrested in the 1946 on charges of being a Western spy and sentenced to 20 years in prison, for which he served 17. It was released at the age of 68 years.
Three years after his release, Hoxha accelerated his struggle against religion and after the demolition of churches and mosques, Kurti, now an elderly and sick man, was ordered to do farm work in a village. During this period, according to what was written in his dossier, he was systematically followed by agents of the 16 Sigurimi.
Despite this, he also managed to baptize children in secret. He was, however, discovered and in the 1970, at the age of 72 years, he was arrested again, on charges of espionage, sabotage and organizing religious ceremonies secretly.
After the fall of the communist regime, Nikolin Kurti investigated the details of his uncle's persecution and from the case file Sigurimi he discovered that he had been sentenced to death after a five-day trial in a building that, ironically, had been a church before.
He was executed in September 1971 in a place that is still unknown today, and without relatives being informed. "The family became aware of this incident at the beginning of March 1973, when an Italian radio reported, among other news, that" in Albania, Shtjefen Kurti had been killed because he had baptized children. "
In other cases, detention left children without parents for long periods of their childhood. Qaramet Koçi, son of Muslim cleric Hafiz Sabri Koçi, said he had not seen his father, sentenced to prison, since he was seven years old until he was 27.
"When my father returned, it was a great joy, but I wasn't used to it. I had never seen my father at home, "said Qaramet Koçi.
The films spread anti-religious propaganda
During the Hoxha era, a film studio team Shqipëria and King (New Albania) dedicated itself to the production of films that spread anti-religious propaganda.
In films with titles like 'Liri a vdekje' (Freedom or death) o 'Te vdesësh në këmbë'(Dying on their feet) the religious were accused of organizing forced and corrupt marriages, of trying to overthrow the authorities, and were depicted as traitors asking for help from foreign powers.
Such propaganda films have been broadcast hundreds of times on the only Albanian television station that existed before communism fell and still today continue to pass on Albanian private channels.
"These films have only caused damage. Year after year, they have created imaginary enemies, unfairly accused groups of people and created false realities, "said Jonila Godole, director of the Institute for Democracy, Media and Culture.
Hundreds of articles have also been published by Albanian newspapers in an attempt to convince readers to rebel against religion; articles that were often accompanied by photographs of the trials, with titles that labeled the religious as traitors or enemies of the people.
"Thirty-three years of imposed atheism have left their mark," said sociologist Zyhdi Dervishi.
"I think that Albanian society has entered the market economy and into democratic processes, carrying with it two great catastrophes: the first, a rotten state without consolidated state structures; the second, the lack of religious education ".
According to Dervishi, the lack of religious values "has damaged the Albanians' ability to socialize", predisposing them to approach crime.
Despite the ban imposed by Enver Hoxha, which lasted until the fall of communism in the 1990, most Albanians today claim to be a believer.
According to the 2011 census, 56,7% of the country's citizens consider themselves Muslims, 10,03% are Catholics, 6,75% Orthodox and 2,09% bektashi.
The 13,79% refused to say whether or not they had particular convictions, but only the 2,5% declared to be an atheist.
However, even if the Albanians are now free to profess whatever religion they choose, the relatives of those who have suffered from faith under the Hoxha regime will never forget the tragic events of the oppressive years.