By Benet Koleka
SHKODER, Albania (Reuters) - Albania’s new Roman Catholic cardinal stuck to his faith even when his communist persecutors screwed handcuffs on so tight that he fainted from pain, or when they tried luring him into marriage to escape jail.
Ernest Simoni, the only survivor of a Catholic clergy that was wiped out by Albania's post-war Communist regime, became the mainly Muslim country's only cardinal after impressing Pope Francis with his fortitude in the face of a lifetime of privations and torture.
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"He wanted to kiss my hand but I pushed it away," Simoni said of their meeting two years ago. "We did not speak."
His Calvary began on Christmas Day 1963 after he celebrated a mass for slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic. The regime of dictator Enver Hoxha felt challenged by a young priest whose church brimmed with young believers.
"They let me finish the mass but arrested me straight afterwards and showed me my death warrant," Simoni, 88, told Reuters, sitting in his brother's home at a table adorned with statuettes of Christ, Mary and other saints.
"I was to hang because I had told the people we should die for Christ," Simoni said. Interrogators tried to tempt him into recanting his faith with the offer of marriage to a "beautiful girl," he said.
"They screwed the handcuffs on so hard that they cut into my flesh," he said. "I fainted. They poured water on me. God saved me."
Sentenced to 18 years' prison and forced labor for saying the mass for Kennedy and for agitating against agricultural cooperatives, Simoni continued to preach to fellow prisoners.
After being released from jail 10 years before communism was toppled in 1991, he worked as a manual laborer, digging sewers by day and ministering to believers in their homes at night.
"I heard their confessions and baptized them, all over the mountains of Northern Albania," he said.
Pope Francis named Simoni among 17 new "princes of the Church" on Oct. 9, and they will be created cardinals at a Vatican ceremony on Nov. 19. Being over 80, Simoni cannot take part in the next conclave to elect the current pope's successor.
(Reporting By Benet Koleka; Editing by Thomas Escritt and Tom Heneghan)