The importance of reaching the Albanian people with the Gospel is hard to overstate. Samuel Zwemer said reaching them would be the key to reaching the Muslim world.
Albania (Shqiperia) is a country comprised of more than 6 million ethnic Albanian people, called Shqiptar (pr. Sh-chip-tar) in their native tongue. In the ancient world the Albanian people were known as the Illyrians living in Illyricum. These were some of the earliest Greek converts to Christianity under the ministry of Paul (Romans 15:9).
Their native land is made of dramatic mountains called the Balkans rising from the Adriatic Sea to the east of Italy, north of Greece, south of Montenegro, and west of Serbia. Their country reminds the American visitor of the Appalachia both in beauty and culture. Blood feuds like the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s are still going on today. (I heard of one believer who has fled to Italy to escape the family responsibility of revenge after his brother was killed by a rival family.)
There are two main tribes of Albanians: the northern tribe called the Gheg and the southern tribe called the Tosk. Each tribe has their own distinct dialect spoken at home while the Tosk dialect has been standardized for teaching in the schools throughout all of the region.
The history of the Albanians is like that of the Kurds in more than one way. The actual borders of Albania were drawn by Russia and the Western powers when the Ottoman Empire fell after WWI. The lines they drew left out almost half of their population and half of their native land. These pieces of traditional Albania to the north, east, and south now belong to Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro (all where the Albanian people make up the minority), and Kosovo (where the Albanians make up a majority). The Albanian people have thus suffered much at the hands of foreign governments who have marginalized them and sometimes murdered them in mass.
A brief history:
Albania was the fault line of the schism between the Western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox church. It was along this fault line that the Turks drove a spear through the heart of the Balkans all the way to the Adriatic from Istanbul threatening Catholic Italy itself. Though the majority of Albanians are Muslim, their ethnic hero is a Christian military leader named Skanderbeg who fended off the Turks who were being led toward Europe by Mehmet the Conquerer in the 1466. Skanderbeg made his last stand in the ancient castle of Shkodra (located in the north of present day Albania). The eventual victory by the Turks meant a gradual rewriting of Albanian history (most think Skanderbeg must have been Muslim since he was Albanian) and the forced conversion of all but the most stubborn of Albanians (more than 80% today consider themselves Muslim).
The history of the Albanians has been fractured since they were divided along national lines after WWI. So to speak of their history we must follow three separate streams.
First, the Albanian people living in Albania proper (the country) suffered for 50 years under the strictest application of communism that the world has ever seen from 1941 to 1991. Dictator Enver Hoxha destroyed all but a handful of ancient churches and mosques and declared Albania to be the world’s first “atheist state”. “Do not look to the church or the mosque for hope,” Hoxha said. The national religion of Albania would be their Albanian-ness. By 1991 after 5 decades of militant athiesm Albania was the only country in the communist block with no known Christians. I listened to the older believers tell me of how they knew no one who believed in God before the fall of communism. Nowhere had Marx done such a thorough job of eradicating “the opium of the people” as he had in Albania through the work of Hoxha.
Second, the Albanians of Kosovo and Montenegro suffered, though admittedly less than their counterparts in Albania, as a region of communist Yugoslavia under Tito during the same period. Their suffering would dramatically increase with the rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic in 1998. He started a campaign of genocide in the region of Kosovo that created a humanitarian crisis as refugees fled over the mountains to Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia. Milosevic employed criminals and thugs to do the dirty work of murdering 70,000 Kosavar Albanians within a matter of weeks. Their aim was to empty Kosovo of Albanians so that their region would belong completely to the Serbs. Thanks to Bill Clinton and NATO they were unsuccessful. After 73 days of bombing from the NATO planes and murder on the ground Milosevic retreated and Kosovo became an independent country for the first time; a country of widows and orphans.
Third, the Albanians of Macedonia escaped the tyranny of communism but not the tyranny of false religion. The orthodox church of Macedonia has marginalized the Albanian minority in every way. As a result the Albanians have clung tighter to their language and religion (Islam) that separate them from the Macedonians.
The protestant missionaries were the first religious group to respect the ethnicity, culture, and language of the Albanian people. The Catholic church had operated in Latin and later the Muslims in Arabic. The British Bible Society commissioned missionaries to reach the Albanians in the early 1800’s, a full 500 years after Islam invaded. Their first job was to develop an alphabet and grammar book for the unwritten Albanian language so that they could translate the Bible into the heart language of the people. Their second job was to teach the Albanians to read their own language! The early evangelical missionaries to the Albanians thus became heroes of the nation and people. The missionaries entered with God’s Word and singing. The Muslims had entered with the sword.
After all of this effort by these early missionaries produced little fruit. Communism stamped out whatever fruit remained. Hoxha wiped the minds of the people of any trace of religion but he could not wipe their consciences clean. This was evident in the testimonies that I heard from the oldest believers, now in their 40’s.
Within weeks of the fall of communism in 1991 missionaries and other non-profit organizations from the West started to trickle into Albania’s capital, Tirana. It took a few years for that trickle to become a flood. Those first responders who stayed were usually single, mobil, and trained in the basics. They found a country that had been absolutely destroyed by isolationism. No one had cars; but what would they do with them if they had? The roads were impassable. They found that food was scarce and electricity was sporadic. They also found a generation of bright university students ready to listen to the Gospel for the first time in the history of this great people. They were eager to listen to whatever Americans had to say about what made America great. These eager college students became the first believers in one of the most amazing and dramatic missionary stories in these modern times.
At the airport when we landed in Tirana we met one of these missionaries and one of these first believers: Missionary David H and Pastor Taulant. (David provided me with most of the information about the history of missions in Albania.) David and Jeff Bartell, both young single men at the time, were part of that first, small wave of missionaries. They both came for a two week missions trip. They ending up giving more than their vacation time. They gave their lives. David would end up spending the next two decades in the northern city of Shkodra while Jeff stayed in the capital, Tirana. They were the type who stayed and made disciples. They had to sift through the first “believers” to find true believers and then teach them the Word. They were holding on for a wild ride of faith that would pay off big time.
Pastor Taulant is a tall, gentle giant with a big smile and spirit that exudes humility. He is educated with an engineer’s degree but has left secular employment ten years ago to pastor the first Baptist church in Tirana where he himself was saved during his college years. He was a strange creature indeed back then: an Albanian born-again evangelical Christian circa 1992. During the rest of my trip I would have the privilege to meet the other men and women of his generation who are filling Albania with their doctrine: Erion, Berty, Freddy, Benny, Sazan, and more.
We entered Bible Baptist Church in Tirana on Thursday night for the start of the four day Bible conference. The oldest believers in the church were a handful of men and women like Pastor Taulant and his wife who trace their spiritual birth back 24 years to that first year missionaries arrived. That generation have married and are raising the first generation of children in Christian homes. Some of them have seen their parents come to faith so there are some older people in attendance. Mostly, though, the church is packed from wall to wall with a very young crowd who are following and learning from these “older” believers. The congregation is made up of believers from both Muslim and Orthodox Albanian families. The newer believers are coming from increasingly religious homes.
These Albanian brothers and sisters have entirely replaced Jeff and David. They are paying their pastors. They are evangelizing, preaching, and discipling. They are organizing beautiful, skillful worship. They are meeting for Bible studies in homes all around the city. They are sending missionaries to every corner of their country and have even sent a missionary from their congregation to Turkey. (He wrote Taulant the day I arrived with the good news of the first Turkish convert.) Over breakfast my last morning in the country Pastor Taulant shared their plan and passion to send more of their congregation to reach the Albanians in neighboring Macedonia. To this day they do not know of a single Albanian believer among this group of dedicated Muslims in Macedonia.
The void left by athiesm in Albania has all been filled now with materialism and Islam. There is a new modern mall and many opportunities to work in the US and Eastern Europe. The Turks and the Arabs are rushing into the country to teach the Muslims about what it means to be Muslim. A huge mosque is being built in Tirana. Turkish schools are recruiting heavily among the young people, especially the orphans. A love and gratefulness for America persists but the break-neck pace of Gospel growth has slowed.
I don’t know if I have ever observed a healthier fellowship of churches. They are really the picture of what indigenous missions should look like after 25 years.
The work among the Albanians of Kosovo has been much different than in Albania. The communism of Yugoslavia was not as sever allowing the people to retain much of their Islamic roots. The massacre of 1999 at the hand of the “Christian” Serbs further poisoned the water hole. The Serb minority took out decades of frustration and hatred on their Muslim neighbors over the course of a few short weeks. After looting the homes and businesses of the Muslim Albanians and killing the men execution style they spray painted the cross on their doors. Their cross was not the cross of Christ, it was a symbol of nationalism.
The initial effort to evangelize the Kosovaars after the fall of Melosevic and his Yugoslavia in 1999 needed to be largely humanitarian. Families were returning to burned homes and destroyed lives. Their government was brand new and the mafia controlled the foreign aide. Missionaries like Nadine H. were there with the House of Laughter.
The numbers of Kosovar believers numbers in the hundreds compared to the numbers in Albania in the thousands. There are still cities like Prizren and Mitrovitz without any local body of believers. New disciple making missionaries are needed there. The churches in neighboring Albania could still use the help to accomplish the task of saturation evangelism and church planting with greatest speed.