People gather in front of the church of the village of Derven
Malbardh - AFP
Perched up an Albanian mountain, the mediaeval church of St Nicolas was rebuilt from a crumbling ruin with help from local Muslims after the fall of communism, a symbol of the religious tolerance Pope Francis will be celebrating here on Sunday.
Majority Muslims and the tiny Catholic and Orthodox communities all faced persecution under the ruthless regime of Enver Hoxha, who in 1967 declared Albania the first atheist country in the world.
Countless churches and mosques were destroyed at the time -- as many as 1,820 Catholic and Orthodox places of worship according to the Vatican -- with scores of clergymen executed or dying in detention.
Nobody in the Muslim village of Malbardh, 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of Tirana, remembers exactly who built St Nicolas church or when. Already in a poor state when the communists took power, it was left to crumble to ruins.
But after the fall of the regime in 1992, Malbardh's Muslims took ecclesiastical authorities by surprise by asking together with their Catholic "brothers" for permission to rebuild the church on its foundations.
"They did not take us seriously. They thought we were trying to get noticed, but we wanted at all costs to rebuild this church," said Hajdar Lika, a sprightly 77-year-old Muslim.
- Muslims owe Catholics protection -
To get to the church, visitors have to take an off-road car, donkey or pilgrim's stick up a steep, winding path high above the village.
Surrounded by his Muslim friends, Nikoll Gjini, a Catholic in his 60s, gestures proudly towards the new church, shaded by majestic oak trees.
"Without their help with building materials and construction work, we would have never been able to rebuild it," said the former chemical industry worker.
At the tiny church, a priest celebrates mass only on major holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but the "holy place" is vital for the small community.
Here in Malbardh, Muslims make up around 90 percent of the village's 2,500 inhabitants, with the remaining 10 percent Catholic.
Nationside, some 56 percent of the population of three million are Muslim. They are followed by Catholics who make up 15 percent, and Orthodox Christians who account for 11 percent.
Pope Francis, who pays a one-day visit to Albania on Sunday, chose it for his first European trip in a tribute to the peaceful coexistence of its Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, who share power in a national unity government.
"The pope's visit is a reason for pride for all Albanians, regardless of their religion," said Malbardh's 42-year-old mayor Agim Lika.
"As a small country, with a tiny Catholic community, we are delighted to be chosen by the pope for his first visit in Europe."
Locals in Malbardh have long worked to keep their different communities close, and believe the Muslim majority owes protection to the minority Catholics.
"In our village, when someone gets married, according to tradition there must be witnesses from both faiths," said Hajdar, a former railroad worker with a cigarette poking out from under a nicotine-stained white moustache.
In Derven, some 20 kilometres away, it is a similar story. Muslims also helped Catholics rebuild their chapel which was destroyed in 1967 by the communists.
"My most important mission was to clean up a land contaminated with the venom of dictatorship and atheism," said father Carmine Leuzzi, looking back on those years.
The priest, sent to Albania from Italy's Bari, has been watching over 500 Catholic families in Derven for the past 18 years.
"On Sunday, we will all go together to Tirana for the Holy Father's mass, and I hope those who cannot go will be watching on television."