DERVEN, Albania – The one-room, stone church of St. Nicholas has sat on the top of a hill here since the 16th century, destroyed three times and rebuilt in a testament to the Catholic presence in this region that dates to St. Paul. Its latest incarnation, however, is particularly poignant: 15 Muslim families chipped in to help rebuild it in a sign of the remarkable coexistence that exists in Albania between Christians and Muslims.
Pope Francis will highlight this interfaith harmony when he makes a one-day trip to the Balkan nation on Sunday, holding it up as a model for the Middle East and other parts of the world where Christians are being targeted by Islamic militants.
Albania's experience is particularly remarkable given the brutal persecution people of all faiths endured under communism, when all religious practice was banned.
The cottage-like church in Derven, known as Shen Koll in Albanian, sits next to the hilltop cemetery of the Cypi family, a large Catholic one that has lived in the region for generations.
The church was first destroyed a century ago, rebuilt and destroyed again in 1957 by the communists. The Cypi family (pronounced Tchypee) rebuilt it, and the communists used it as a storage depot until 1978, when the regime had it destroyed after learning that people still prayed there, said Pashk Cypi, the family's 70-year-old patriarch.
The family decided to rebuild it for the third time last year.
Relatives managed to raise 1.7 million leks (12,000 euros; $15,000) — not enough to rebuild. But word spread among 3,500 residents of the Derven commune, which is about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Tirana, the capital.
"Everybody came and left 1,000 leks (7 euro; $9) or more," Cypi said, standing in front of a statue of the Madonna outside the chapel. "Others brought bricks, cement, or came to work alongside us. A businessman offered assistance with tiles and money."
"They were all Muslims, our neighbors," he said.
The renovation was completed on schedule Dec. 5, in time for thousands of Catholics and Muslims to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas — together.
Kujtim Balluku, 40, a Muslim who moved to Derven more than 20 years ago, considered it "our duty of honor" to assist in the rebuilding of a saint's holy site.
"We were warmly welcomed by the other farmers. Later we learned that most people in Derven were Catholics, but it didn't matter," he said. "Helping each other helps us cope with poverty and life's difficulties."
Albania is a predominantly Muslim nation, with smaller Catholic and Orthodox communities. All of them suffered gravely under Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who declared Albania the world's first atheist state in 1967. Religious authorities of all faiths were killed, tortured, imprisoned or sent to labor camps.
But even during the 23 years that religion was banned, "we always celebrated each others' religious festivities with visits and small hidden celebrations," said Cypi, adding that there are mixed marriages and close family ties among Muslims and Catholics today.
The Rev. Carmine Leuzzi, a 63-year-old Italian who is the parish priest for Shen Koll, said Francis' visit to Albania would show the world what religious harmony can look like. It's the second papal visit to Albania after St. John Paul II visited in 1993, three years after the communist regime fell.
"This small Catholic praying site has been destroyed three times and rebuilt three times," Leuzzi said, sitting inside the small chapel, neat rows of chairs extending down the aisle in pairs. "This time it will be the strongest, as all the people living around, including Muslims, have contributed."
Balluku, the Muslim, said Francis' visit would be yet another way to stress the need for religious harmony in Albania and beyond. He said he had been invited on Sunday to a nearby town to commemorate World War II events in which his own family members were killed.
"Instead, I will be in Tirana to see him," he said.