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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with additional reporting by Vatican Radio's Linda Bordoni in Rome
SHKODER/VATICAN CITY (BosNewsLife)--Dozens of Catholic martyrs who were killed between 1945 and 1974 by Albania's Communist regime for their devoted faith in Jesus Christ have been "beatified" according to Catholic tradition in the northwestern Albanian city of Shkodër.
Up to 20,000 people attended an emotionally charged Mass in and around the main cathedral in Shkodër to remember the martyrs who refused to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ and were therefore executed by Albania's late communist dictator Enver Hoxha's regime.
In April, Pope Francis officially recognized as martyrs Archbishop Vincens Prenushi and 37 other priests who died in prison or were murdered from 1945 to 1974 by communist dictator Enver Hoxha's regime.
Hoxha banned religion in 1967 and his regime persecuted especially Christian leaders and believers. During Pope Francis' visit to Tirana in 2014, big posters of the 38 clergy were placed along the Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard in Tirana, the capital.
The 88-year old Ernest Simoni, who was named recently as a cardinal by the pope to honor his suffering in prison, held a box with the bones of ten martyrs at the Mass, which was also attended by several other cardinals and Albanian government officials.
"REWARD FROM GOD"
In a statement he said that "Today's beatification of the 38 martyrs is the reward form God to all those living in this world and assisting the poor." He added: "It is a reward for us, the people and the whole world."
People heard how the martyrs were tortured to death or executed, always praying for God and pardoning their murderers. One female teacher died wrapped in a sack simply because she reminded her students of the presence of Christ. All reportedly died shouting "Long live Christ the King! Long live Albania! We forgive those who kill us."
Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, presided over the Beatification Mass and spoke to the crowd in the Square of St. Stephen’s Cathedral encouraging them to remain hopeful: "While the persecutors dissolve like so many black shadows which are lost forever in the darkness of eternal oblivion," he said, "martyrs are guiding lights that shine in the sky of humanity, showing the true face of man’s goodness, his profound identity created in the image of God”.
The beatification ceremony was held in Shkoder, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Tirana, because that is where just prior to the fall of the communist regime in 1990, the first public Mass was held. The cathedral served as a sports hall after religion was banned.
In September, Albanians also celebrated the canonization of Mother Teresa, who was born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu of Albanian parents. Now Albania is seen as model for religious harmony, with a Muslim majority and Orthodox and Catholic communities among its 3.2 million people.