SHKODËRDuring 40 years of communist rule in Albania – which, in 1967, declared itself the first completely atheist country in the world – praying, making the sign of the cross, wearing a crucifix around one’s neck, or any other evidence of being a believer in God were treated as crimes.

Churches, mosques and other places of worship were used as shopping centers, sports halls, or theaters. That too was the fate of the cathedral of Shkodër, which was turned into a sports arena.

But on Nov. 5, it will be the site of the beatification of 38 Albanian martyrs.

“Before they were tortured and executed by firing squad, they all said: ‘Long live Christ the King, long live Albania. We forgive those who kill us’,” Archbishop Angelo Massafra of Shkodër told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

Among the martyrs were a number of bishops, priests, and ordinary faithful, including one woman, María Tuci.

María was a teacher and she was condemned to die for the crime of reminding students of the presence of Christ. Her death was excruciating, after she had already been arrested and tortured countless times. She was finally put in a sack along with a cat. The torturers repeatedly hit the cat with a stick and their victim later died of the injuries inflicted by the terrified animal.

Father Lazer Shantoja was tortured so severely in the environs of Tirana that his own mother begged that he be shot to death to finally put an end to his suffering.

Ndre Zadeja was the first to be executed by firing squad; he was the first martyr of the Albanian communist dictatorship that finally collapsed in 1991. He died in Shkoder.

Massafra, who serves as president of the Albanian bishops’ conference, said that all who were murdered in that city were forced to walk along a particular route that ended at the cemetery wall. There they were “tortured, spat upon, and finally executed by shooting.” The route led them past the cathedral.

“This was done on purpose. It was to remind them that they were suffering because of their love for Christ,” the bishop said.

“The beatification ceremony will be a joyous festival. Thousands of Albanians all over the world will be following” the proceedings, Massafra said. “This small, but great Church has given the world Church countless martyrs,” he added.

The martyrs’ beatification process was begun in 2002 and was completed in 2010. Pope Francis signed a decree that authorized the beatification to take place Nov. 5.

Muslims, who account for as much as 70 percent of the population of Albania, were not spared either. Thousands of people lived in concentration camps or languished in prisons because they believed in God “or in Allah,” the bishop said.

There have been notable survivors of the reign of terror, including Father Ernest Simoni, who spent 28 years in a labor camp and whom Pope Francis has just made a cardinal. Then there is Sister Marije Kaleta. Both met the pope during his recent visit to the country, leaving the pontiff visibly moved.

Massafra spoke of them as ranking among the “secret consolers of the other prisoners.” Father Simoni was able to say Mass secretly during his years of captivity.