On a parched day in late August, tens of thousands of Sufi pilgrims wound their way up the dusty, unpaved road to Mount Tomorr, in southern Albania. At the summit, they ritually slaughtered thousands of sheep, lit candles and prayed during a weeklong ceremony to commemorate the 7th-century Muslim martyr Abbas ibn Ali.
It’s an event that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, when the holy site was home to military barracks and religion was outlawed by Albania’s communist dictatorship.
Under Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, who served as head of state from 1944 to 1985, Catholic priests were murdered, Sufi dervish lodges were demolished, monasteries were converted into warehouses, and more than 200 clerics of all faiths were jailed.
But since the ban was lifted in 1990 and the collapse of the regime a year later, the country has seen a mass religious revival.
Large crosses are common in front of homes and along roads. Public spaces are frequently used for religious events, and a small number of women now wear the hijab. Although in 1989, all Albanian citizens were labeled as “atheist,” in 2011 only 2.5 percent identified themselves as such, according to the World Values Survey. In 2002, the city’s main Catholic church opened its doors not far from Hoxha’s mausoleum.
“The more people believe, the more intolerant they are” — Mustafa Nano, an Albanian political analyst, on the state of faith in the country
However, not everyone is happy with the resurgence of religion in the Balkan nation.
While the government has recognized five official religions — including Islam and Catholicism — the political establishment remains staunchly secular, keeping in line with a strong tradition that stretches back to the 19th century, when many nationalist leaders believed a non-religious, pan-Albanian identity was the only way to escape the Ottoman Empire’s religious divisions.
As a result of this distance and otherwise limited resources, religious leaders say they struggle to get funding to rebuild the religious institutions destroyed during the dictatorship and are increasingly forced to seek support elsewhere.
“I am an international beggar,” said Archbishop Anastasios, head of the Orthodox Church of Albania. “We may not have a church here without the support of Denmark and the [Switzerland-based] World Council of Churches.”
Under communism, the gag order on religion was total. “Communism here was not just atheist but anti-theist,” said Archbishop George Anthony Frendo, speaking in his office behind Tirana’s plain, airy Catholic cathedral. “It was literally a struggle against God.”
But the massive resurgence of faith post-1990 is a sign that the government was never fully successful in suppressing it.
“Even when it was illegal, belief was never extinguished completely,” said Artan Rama, a journalist and Orthodox Christian who lives in Tirana. “During Orthodox Easter, my grandmother would boil just one egg, dye it red, and give it to me, with no explanation,” he recalled.
She was afraid of explaining the tradition to her grandson, he later learned, because schoolteachers interrogated young children for signs of illegal religiosity in their families.
Now, “more people have access to religious knowledge,” said Loreta Aliko, the head of the State Committee on Cults, which mediates relations between religious communities and the state.
“Islam in Albania is completely compatible with human rights and democracy” — Bujar Spahui, the leader of Albania’s Sunni Muslim community
The committee provides religious groups with material support, such as electricity and water for places of worship. But trying to rebuild the religious infrastructure that was destroyed under the communist regime has been an uphill climb, she said.
Although the country now counts some 800 mosques — up from zero in 1991 — it’s still only half the number of mosques that existed in pre-communist Albania, for example.
The effort is complicated by the government’s reluctance to get further involved.
The state’s attempts to distance itself from grassroots religious movements have made these communities susceptible to foreign influence. Turkey, for example, has been the most active supporter of Albania’s Muslim community, staking its claim on the fact that Albania used to belong to the Ottoman Empire.
The Diyanet, Turkey’s religious ministry, is building a grand mosque in the Albanian capital. When it opens its doors next year, it will be the largest mosque in the Balkans.
Turkish authorities are also reconstructing old mosques and Sufi lodges in small towns and villages across Albania. In the historic town of Berat, restoration projects commonly bear plaques noting the financial support of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).
Members of Albania’s small but growing Salafi community — which advocates for a conservative, revivalist strain of Sunni Islam and seeks to return to the religion’s early traditions — have turned to Saudi Arabia, which has offered scholarships in the Balkans since the 1960s.
Many of the movement’s most prominent members in Albania — as well as in neighboring Albanian-speaking countries like Kosovo and Macedonia — were educated in Saudi universities.
The movement even has its own TV channel — Peace TV, a branch of the global Salafi media channel created by the extremist Indian preacher Zakir Naik — that is headquartered in Kosovo but frequently features Albanian preachers as guests, including Genc Plumbi, a graduate of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University.
The Sufi community, too, relies on external support.
Bektashi Sufi leaders take regular trips to the holy city of Karbala in Iraq, invited by the keepers of its important Shiite (or Shia) shrines, in an effort to align with the international Shiite community.
“The Shi’a in Iraq are helping us a lot today,” Edmond Brahimaj, the Bektashi’s Baba Mondi, or world leader, said during the pilgrimage to Mount Tomorr.
The Albanian government, he implied, is not. “Have you seen the road coming up here? The pilgrimage happens despite the government,” he said.
“We cannot avoid foreign financial help,” said Aliko, of the Cults Committee, who admits that the state has limited resources.
For Albanian politicians, the resurgence in religious belief comes at an awkward time.
The country, which has been on a path toward accession to the European Union since 2014, is hoping to unblock a long-stalled process and get the green light to start negotiations about joining the bloc.
European leaders are expected to discuss the question of whether to open talks with Albania and North Macedonia this week. Although the European Commission said in May both countries had made the necessary progress on democratic standards and the rule of law, some countries — notably France and the Netherlands — worry the western Balkan nations haven’t done enough to root out corruption, organized crime and poverty or reckon with its recent history of conflict.
Religion may also be a consideration for Albania.
Most of its European neighbors are majority Christian. If Albania were to join the EU, it would be its first Muslim-majority country.
Some 61 percent of Albanians identify as Muslim, according to the 2011 census. Catholics make up about 10 percent, with Orthodox citizens at 7 percent.
Muslim leaders insist that the resurgence of Islam among Albanians wouldn’t lead to a culture clash with Europe. “Islam in Albania is completely compatible with human rights and democracy,” said Bujar Spahui, the leader of Albania’s Sunni Muslim community, noting that, for the majority of Albanian Muslims, adhering to sharia (Islamic law) entails following the secular government.
But in recent years, the government has tried to downplay the size of its Muslim community. In one high-profile break from the country’s secular traditions, Albania’s charismatic basketball player-turned-prime minister, Edi Rama, has declared himself a Catholic and showily courted Pope Francis, who visited Albania on his first foreign trip in 2014.
For those hoping to be able to swiftly join the EU, there’s concern that Albania’s rediscovery of religiosity could pose a threat to those ambitions, especially if the country’s politicians start to pick sides.
“When Albanian politicians are asked about what Albania can bring to the European Union, they tend to say ‘interreligious tolerance,’” said Mustafa Nano, an Albanian political analyst, who is not religious.
“But the reason this tolerance existed was because people were not serious believers,” he argued. “The more people believe, the more intolerant they are.”
Krithika Varagur is an American journalist based in Southeast Asia whose book on Gulf proselytization will be published in the spring. Reporting for this piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.