Excerpt from the book “Albania: from Anarchy to a Balkan Identity” by Miranda Vickers, James Pettifer, pages 115-117.
Since 1991 missionaries and clerics from a variety of European and American Christian Churches have flooded into Albania. Because Albania had been officially proclaimed the world’s first and only atheist country, the need for Christian teaching was deemed by these highly-motivated zealots to be more necessary there than in any of the other former communist countries. The majority of Albanians have found the arrival of many of these groups a bewildering experience, especially as many of these visitors come from the wilder fringes of cultist movements.
Albanians were ignorant of the existence of so many different Christian religions, and as a result some members of Parliament proposed a law that would forbid any missionary activity unconnected with one of Albania’s established religions – Islam, Bektashism, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholicism. This, however, was such a sensitive issue, dealing as it did with the fundamental freedom to practise one’s religion, that the matter remained unsettled.
In the summer of 1991 the Dutch Evangelical organisation ‘God Loves Albania’ was very active. Its vans, emblazoned with the words ‘God Loves Albania’, could be seen in several towns, where its youthful and enthusiastic members would hand out translated Bibles to incredulous groups of Albanians who gathered around them in awestruck silence. During the last years of Ramiz Alia’s government, several Albanians had been encouraged to escape to the Netherlands where they were employed to translate children’s Bibles into Albanian. They were quickly baptised and given meagre accommodation in return. In 1991 Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, a number of other Christian groups and Baha’is gathered under government recognition as the Evangelical Brotherhood. A year later these Protestants had legal recognition.
A highly controversial aspect of Christian activity in Albania is the running of orphanages for the state. The Shtepia Shpreses ‘Home of Hope’ in Elbasan, founded in the summer of 1992 by the American Apostolic Team Ministries, was the first privately run orphanage in the country. Another in Tirana, with 113 children aged between six and sixteen, is run by the American-based charity Hope for the World, which was given a ten-year contract to run the orphanage by the Albanian government, which was desperately short of the financial means to ensure proper provision for the children. Most of the funding for the Home of Hope orphanage came from the Austrian-based missionary group. Evangelism in Action. Other donations arrived from Evangelical groups in Europe and America. Any foreign assistance was gratefully accepted at this time.
Baptist groups have been particularly active in Albania ever since the first Baptist delegation arrived on 16 July 1992; along with other Christian groups, they offered material incentives, such as food, clothing, medicines and Coca-Cola to lure potential converts. The Seventh Day Adventists were active in Korça and the surrounding region, and in charity and aid work in Tirana. Evangelical missionaries were soon to be found in almost every remote town in Albania, and advertisements for prayer meetings appear in the press and in public places. Their dedication in preparation for their task is phenomenal. For example, most Mormon missionaries, before coming to work in Albania, studied Albanian for six hours a day five days a week for three months. They also frequently live with their Albanian neighbours in extremely primitive conditions without hot water, electricity or regular food supplies. The Christian missionaries see themselves as part of a religious war for the minds and souls of Albanians and as the vanguard of a new crusade for Christendom. Hundreds of thousands of Bibles in Albanian were feverishly printed to match a similar number of Korans being sent from the Islamic world. Some of the more extreme Christian groups would tell anyone who would listen that they were in Albania to counter not only the encroachment of Islam, but also communism and atheism, which they claimed were still active elements in Albanian society.
In July 1992 eighty members of the American Christian youth group ‘Teen Mania’ travelled through Albania giving performances in various towns. In the northern town of Burrel they performed concerts, of which the overall message was ‘friendship with God’, in the streets and parks and, according to ATA, ‘were followed with interest by the artlovers of Burrel’.12 That these concerts were called ‘art’ says much about the way Albanians generally interpreted the action of foreign Christian groups during the early transition period.
‘Culture’ was deemed to be a product of the West, especially America, and in a society where almost everything Western had been condemned the authorities were at a loss to give an appropriate name to what was now suddenly appearing from the West. This attitude was to last for about two years; by 1994 many Albanians had become irritated by these insistent, humourless and dogmatic missionaries, whether Christian or Muslim. Gjergj Mala, a factory worker, called them ‘soul-buyers’. He told a journalist angrily: ‘These missionaries say they have come to help Albania. If they consider building churches and mosques a help, that’s fine, but that’s not going to put food on my family’s table. If you want to help me, how about building me a factory where I can work and make a living? The missionaries are doing what Enver Hoxha did; brainwashing young people, but to the other extreme.’13
Since the average age of the Albanian population is twenty-eight and the atheist state was declared in 1967, the majority of Albanians have no inherited culture of religious practice, only an inherited identity. It is those aged between twenty and forty – the parents of the next generation of Albanians – who have been most affected by the years of atheism, a fact which has not been lost on the Christian and Muslim missions working in Albania. They have therefore to some extent given up on older people and are concentrating their efforts on the very young, but few young people in the major towns were prepared to listen to what were now termed ‘crackpot’ missionaries.
In the summer of 1995 the crowded tables at one prominent central Tirana cafe quickly emptied as soon as three check-shirted, wholesome-looking American evangelists arrived. They had paid the cafe-owner well for the privilege of setting up their microphone and stereo equipment right in the midst of the tables and began, in a deep southern drawl, to croon a song entitled ‘Jesus has come to Albania’. The young clientele evaporated into the nearby streets leaving a deflated trio of Americans and a smiling cafe-owner. In the more remote and impoverished rural districts, however, people were still receptive to religious workers of extremist persuasions.
In general the religious atmosphere of Albania has had a febrile, effervescent quality during the first half of the 1990s with hundreds of organisations competing against a mainstream culture which, for the moment at least, seems likely to be dominated by pro-American Western secularism, leaving the missionaries with their extreme and divergent views competing for the same somewhat bewildered potential converts.
12 Albanian Telegraphic Agency, 12 July 1992.
13 Illyria, 406, October 1998.