By Enris Nase
Enris Nase and his wife Sylvia are Echoes International mission workers, who focus on bible teaching and literature work in Albania. Here Enris describes the past, present and future of mission in Albania.
Albania is a beautiful country, with stunning mountains and an attractive coastline. Situated in South Eastern Europe, it is surrounded by other countries containing groups of ethnic Albanians: in Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. There are more than 6 million Albanian-speaking people in the Balkan region, but only half of them live within Albania.
The Ancient Waves of Christianity
Christianity in Albania is claimed to be apostolic, although when the Apostle Paul said, ‘…round about unto Illyricum’ (Rom. 15:19), we cannot be sure if he meant that he came into Illyricum or that he only arrived at the borders of the land. For many centuries Albanians were either Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, until the rule of the Islamic Ottoman Empire from 1400AD to 1900AD. During this dark period, a process of Islamisation took place and by the beginning of the 20th century, when Albania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire, the population was 70% Muslim, 20% Greek Orthodox and 10% Roman Catholic. Today, the majority of the population is still traditionally Muslim. Under the influence of Turkey and the Gulf States, traditional Islam is being replaced by a more militant form. The influence of Turkey’s foreign policy to revive Ottomanism is felt in the country, as Islam wants to claim back the land for itself. The radicalisation of Muslims in Albania follows the global trend, and many from Albania and Kosovo have gone to Syria to fight under the IS (Islamic State) flag.
The gospel re-emerged in Albania in the mid-19th century, when the British and Foreign Bible Society began to translate the New Testament into the two main dialects of the 389 Albanian languages. By the end of the 19th century a small evangelical community was established in Korcha, southeast Albania. For many years this was the only light of the gospel until the end of the Second World War, when the communist regime was established and mission workers were expelled.
From Darkness to Light
Albania’s communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, ruled the country for 40 years until his death in 1985. He instituted one of the fiercest regimes in the Eastern Bloc: young teenagers coming from an atheistic family did not have the right to private property or political views. Today, after 25 years of gospel ministry in Albania, the number of evangelicals is significant compared to other neighbouring countries that had more freedom during the communist years. There are estimated to be around 15,000 evangelicals, making up more than 0.5% of the population, when only 25 years ago there were almost no born-again Christians. To God be the glory! The main concentration of Christians is in Tirana with more than 70 evangelical churches, varying from larger congregations with 300 members to small house groups. The assembly work in Albania actually began only 50 miles away in Italy, when Albanian immigrants crossed the Adriatic Sea in March 1991. The Christians in southern Italy helped many immigrants by giving them clothing, food and shelter. Their work was watered by the prayers of many around the globe who had taken action from Albania over a number of years. At that time no one thought that the opening up of Albania was only a matter of months away. In November that same year, due to the assistance given to the immigrants in Italy, an Italian mission team was warmly welcomed in Albania by the families of those they had helped. Immediately gospel meetings were held in civic centres, homes and libraries. The first conversions soon followed, and new assemblies were established in the main cities and towns. Having been saved before they arrived but not fellowshipping anywhere, and being able to speak Italian, I immediately joined them and was one of the first seven baptised in February 1992. As a result, the first assembly in Albania was formed. Later, other missionary couples joined the original team to help and disciple new believers.
M was a teenager studying at high school in Tirana when he heard the gospel and was saved. He went back to his home town and shared his new-found faith with his family. His sister was saved and then his parents. In the following weeks, his cousins, their parents and others obeyed the gospel, resulting in another religious freedom that no longer existed – the communist government suppressed every initiative of this kind. In 1967 the New Youth, inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, started an anti-religious campaign, during which a number of traditional places of worship were demolished or converted into cultural centres, storehouses, theatres and even public toilets. The campaign culminated in 1976, when the regime declared in its new constitution that the only ideology in Albania was atheism; it was the first acclaimed atheist country in the world. As the years passed, the government gradually isolated itself from the outside world, resulting in extreme poverty throughout the country. Albania in the late 1980s could arguably be compared to North Korea today.
After almost 45 years of communism and isolation, in 1990 change came again for the ‘country of the eagles’ with a fragile form of democracy. Moreover, the gospel came to Albania for the third time in its history. It literally happened as described in Scripture: ‘The people which sat in darkness saw great light’(Matt. 4:16a).
‘The people which sat in darkness saw great light’ -Matt. 4:16a
From the spiritual darkness of five centuries under Islam and 45 years of communism, the radiant light of the gospel shone into Albania. Someone defined what happened in the 1990s as an ‘experiment of the Holy Spirit’. An atheistic people, with no knowledge of God or the Bible, had an encounter with the hope brought by faith in the Lord Jesus. One of the first missionaries who arrived in Albania in late 1991 commented, “Those days were unique. I immediately felt and understood that we were making history… People were eager to hear the good news and to accept it.” Hundreds were saved in the summer of 1991 and the first churches were started in the capital, Tirana, with other places following suit. I was saved in that first harvest new community of born-again Christians and a further assembly being established. Today there are about 15 assemblies in Albania; these are led mostly by indigenous believers, as the majority of mission workers have now left. They are actively involved in their local communities with ministries such as a Bible school, an evangelistic website, an orphanage, prison work, two radio stations which serve remote areas, and several student ministries in universities. The assemblies are also involved in producing Christian literature, and translating Bible commentaries and other books, which have been highly appreciated by local believers. More recently a Bible exhibition has been developed, which is the first one of its kind in Albania. A lady phoned the Christian radio station in Tirana professing her saving faith. During the conversation it transpired that she was completely blind, but listened faithfully to their programmes and was saved by what she heard. She is still in fellowship in one of the assemblies in Tirana. A young man was also saved when a recording of one of the programmes was passed to him on a tape and he too joined another assembly.
“Those days were unique. I immediately felt and understood that we were making history… People were eager to hear the good news and to accept it.”
As first-generation Christians, Albanian believers are facing different challenges: the lack of experience being a significant one. Although mission workers carried out great work, passing on ‘all the council of God’ (Acts 20:27), there are still many areas in which local Christians have to take decisions according to their own convictions and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. On average believers are in their mid-30s, but their life experiences have made them grow quickly, and cling more to the Lord and His Word. Migration is another challenge. The local churches outside of Tirana face constant waves of emigration, especially as young people leave to study in the capital and then settle there as it is easier to find employment. At times, local churches struggle to maintain a testimony and continue the work. However, it appears that there is more openness towards the gospel in these areas than in the capital. Presently the Albanian church appears to be going through a phase of consolidation. The leaders need wisdom to find a balance between Bible teaching and pastoral care, while not losing sight of a renewed and fresh vision for the lost. As we have seen in history, where God is at work the enemy is also active. For the continuation of the work here, and in order to leave a legacy to the next generation, it is vital that we all endeavour, ‘…to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4:3).
By Enris Nase