SHKODER, Albania (AP) — Thousands gathered in prayer Saturday at a cathedral in Albania to celebrate the beatification of 38 Albanian Catholic martyrs executed or tortured to death during the former communist 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 the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha's regime, which banned religion in 1967 and persecuted its believers.
During Francis' visit in 2014, big posters of the 38 clergy were placed along the Martyrs of the Nation Boulevard in Tirana, the capital.
On Saturday, up to 20,000 people attended a Mass at the Shen Shtjefni cathedral in the city of Shkoder, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Tirana, together with five cardinals and senior Albanian officials. The few thousand inside the cathedral were outnumbered by the many thousands surrounding it.
The Rev. Ernest Simoni, 88, named recently as a cardinal by Francis to honor his suffering in prison, held a box with the bones of ten martyrs at the Mass.
"Today's beatification of the 38 martyrs is the reward from God to all those living in this world and assisting the poor. It is a reward for us, the people and the whole world," Simoni said.
Those attending heard how the Albanian martyrs were tortured to death or executed, always praying for God and pardoning their killers. One female teacher died wrapped in a sack simply because she reminded her students of the presence of Christ. All died shouting "Long live Christ the King! Long live Albania! We forgive those who kill us."
Now Albania is a model for interfaith harmony, with a Muslim majority and Orthodox and Catholic communities among its 3.2 million people.
Simoni was named last month as a cardinal to honor his 18 years in prison where he was tortured, twice sentenced for murder and sent to forced labor for refusing to speak out against the Catholic Church. He was arrested after Christmas Mass in 1963 and charged with saying Masses to pray for John F. Kennedy, the American president who had been assassinated one month earlier in Dallas.
Simoni is among the cardinals over 80 who can't vote in a conclave to elect a new pope but were named because of their service to the church. The Vatican is holding a ceremony for all the new cardinals on Nov. 19.
Simoni said Saturday that he was touched by his nomination but added modestly "the people have suffered much more than me."
Simoni brought Francis to tears two years ago when he recounted his life story in Tirana. After embracing Simoni, Francis said: "Today I touched martyrs."
After Hoxha's regime banned religion, churches, mosques and other places of worship were used as shopping centers, sports halls or theaters.
The beatification ceremony was held in Shkoder, 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, born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents.