Obituary: Cardinal Mikel Koliqi

Mikel Koliqi survived 38 years of imprisonment in Enver Hoxha's jails to become, at the age of 92, a member of the highest body in the Roman Catholic Church, the College of Cardinals. The first Albanian to be raised to the Sacred College, he was apparently chosen as the oldest of the 30 or so Catholic priests to have survived the Communist persecutions. "Imprisoned and prevented for long years in the exercise of his priestly mission," Pope John Paul wrote in the wake of his death, "he, as a solid oaktree, never became intimidated, becoming a shining example of trust in Divine Providence as well as constant fidelity to the See of Peter."

Born in Shkodra in 1902, Koliqi was educated by the Jesuits who, recognising his intelligence and potential, sent him for study at the Aricci College in Brescia in Italy. Among his schoolmates was the future Pope John XXIII. He went on to study engineering at Milan University before transferring to the theology faculty. He was ordained priest in Shkodra in 1931 and was appointed a curate at the cathedral parish. In 1936 he became parish priest at the cathedral, as well as vicar general of the Shkodra archdiocese. As a young priest he was involved in youth work and Catholic journalism. He was also the founder of Cath-olic Action in Albania, as well as writing three operas that are credited with being the foundation of an Albanian operatic tradition.

He was arrested in February 1945 as the new Communist dictatorship tightened its grip on religious organisations. He spent the next five years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Two priests arrested with him were shot.

He was then transferred to forced labour and had to work from dawn to dusk in the fields or digging drainage channels in a malaria-infested region of Albania, reporting daily to the secret police. He lived in a single room with no furniture and was avoided by the locals as a class enemy.

He was again arrested in 1967 - the year religion was completely outlawed in Albania - and was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for anti-Communist agitation, accused of listening to foreign radio broadcasts and conducting religious work with young people. He was freed after nine years and returned to his home town of Shkodra. Although by now any priestly work was forbidden, and despite his age, he ministered in secret to those who sought him out.

After the lifting of the ban on religion in 1990, Koliqi resumed work in the open, in particular helping refound a Catholic press. He also became a key figure in the society of ex-political prisoners. On his 90th birthday, Pope John Paul sent him a special greeting which was passed on by the apostolic nuncio at a special mass in Koliqi's house chapel. He also received the Torch of Democracy award from the Albanian president Sali Berisha.

Pope John Paul sought him out on his one-day visit to Albania on 25 April 1993 and the two were able to have a long discussion - both speaking Italian - about Koliqi's fate and the fate of his colleagues during the Communist era.

The news of Koliqi's elevation to the College of Cardinals - announced in late October 1994 - was given a tremendous reception at a special mass in the cathedral in Shkodra, his home town and the Catholic stronghold in the north of this traditionally mostly Muslim country.

Koliqi was perhaps the most surprising of the new cardinals appointed by Pope John Paul in the 1994 consistory. At the age of 92 he was already the third oldest cardinal and was way over the age beyond which cardinals cannot vote in a conclave. Koliqi always stressed that the award of a cardinal's hat was not because of his merit but was to all who suffered with him. He expressed his anxiety about what he called his "huge responsibilities" and said he was afraid that people would now regard him as the Pope's special representative in Albania.

Koliqi lived out his last years with his niece and her family in a small flat near Shkodra cathedral. Always ready to welcome visitors, despite his frailty, he would recount his prison experiences without bitterness. He was ever eager to show the photographs of the consistory, proudly pointing out his nephews and nieces who were present to share what he called the "highlight" of his life.

Mikel Koliqi, priest: born Shkodra, Albania 29 September 1902; ordained priest 1931; Cardinal 1994; died Shkodra 28 January 1997.

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