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Protestantism in Albania

By Rev. Edwin E. Jacques 

Printed originally in Liria, January, 1994 pp. 8-10. 
Used by the kind permission of Dr. Edwin E. Jacques with whom RCM's Rev. Donnan was in frequent phone contact during 1993.  He provided the following material.

Protestantism is not usually recognized as one of Albania's traditional religions.  Yet, like other Christians, Protestants trace their spiritual roots back to our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the apostle Paul who declared that "round about unto Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ" (Romans 15:19).  The Christian religion, both Eastern and Western, was put in eclipse by the Ottoman occupation beginning in 1503.  Albania's spiritual renaissance was assisted by sturdy characters, both Albanian and expatriate, male and female, who were captivated by two magnificent obsessions: Albanianism and the Evangel.

Probably the first distinctively Protestant action for Albania occurred in 1824 when the British and Foreign Bible Society of London published in Corfu its first Biblical literature in the Albanian language, proscribed at the time by authorities both the Ottoman Empire and the Greek Orthodox Church.  Further the scholar Kostandin Kristoforidhi of Elbasan, who maintained a prolific partnership with the Bible Society from 1857 to 1874.  Probably the earliest Protestant preaching in Albania came in 1889 when Gerasim Kyrias (or Qiriazi) of Monastir reached Korcha to preach the gospel, and to open the first Albanian-language school for girls in 1891.  He, with others of like mind, formed a society called the Vellazeria Ungjillore (Evangelical Brotherhood) with its own monthly paper and a constitution stating its three fold purpose:  to propagate the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ in Albania, to publish Albanian literature, and to establish and direct Albanian schools.  His two sisters Sevasti and Parashqeví Kyrias graduated from the American College for Women at Constantinople which was maintained by the Congregational Mission Board of Boston. They, as educational pioneers, directed the embattled school for years. They also organized the first known patriotic society for the uplift of Albanian women, called Yll' i Mëngjezit (Morning Star), with branches throughout the country.  During the frenetic World War I years both Sevasti and Parashqevi were in Boston writing, lecturing and interceding in high places for the independence of Albania.  They returned to Tirana in 1920 to establish a counterpart of the College for Women, naming it the "Gerasim Kyrias Institute," where, in Sevasti's words, they would "stand in a quiet way for Protestant Christianity."  There were also many others.  Rev. and Mrs. Grigor Tsilka came to the Kyrias school in 1900, both teaching there.  Having completed theological studies in New York's prestigious Union Theological Seminary, Tsilka served as pastor of the evangelical congregation in Korcha.  Mihal Grameno repeatedly paid tribute to this "gospel preacher and patriot."

Rev. and Mrs. Phineas Kennedy were sent by the Boston-based Congregational Mission Board to help stabilize the embattled Kyrias school.  Having studied at Princeton College and Princeton Seminary in the 1890s while Woodrow Wilson served as a professor, Kennedy, as a knowledgeable alumnus, proved helpful to Wilson as American President at the Paris Peace Conference in weighing the territorial claims and counterclaims of Albania's greedy neighbors.  One quarter of a century later the president of the American National Pan-Epirotic League could neither forget nor forgive, but labeled Kennedy as a "veteran American missionary," a "most ardent Albanian propagandist" who had "exercised an unfortunate influence upon the American State Department."  Even in their mid-seventies the Kennedys wrote nostalgically about attempts to resume work in postwar Korcha.  Rev. C. Telford Erickson, having trained at Boston University and Yale, joined Kennedy in 1908.  His attempts to establish a strong agricultural, medical and evangelical program at Elbasan met determined resistance.  Pleading for Korcha in London with the Conference of Ambassadors and later in Paris at the Peace Conference, his mission office in Boston required him to choose either his political concerns or his evangelical calling, so he resigned and chose Albania.  Returning with the Near East Foundation, he established the Kavaja Agricultural School in 1926, later being honored with the Order of Skanderbeg, the highest honor to be awarded any foreigner. 

Then there was Kristo Dako, who completed studies at Oberlin (Ohio) Theological Seminary, married Sevasti Kyrias, authored many Albanian textbooks, and served as administrator of their Kyrias Institute in Tirana.

Rev. and Mrs. Edwin Jacques joined the Kennedy work in 1932.  A believing judge of the High Court of Korcha, Vasil Mançi, had adopted Huguenot convictions while studying law at the University of Montpellier in southern France.  In view of a Decree-Law of July, 1929 governing all religious bodies, he urged the missionaries to secure legal recognition for their work, and headed a small committee to draft the constitution for an "Albanian Evangelical Society."  The draft constitution was becoming a thing of beauty from every viewpoint:  legal, linguistic and evangelical.  But Manci became ill and died in surgery, and no other in the evangelical family felt qualified to assume the leadership role. 

The Evangelical Mission thereafter continued its program on governmental sufferance, the possibility of imminent closure hanging over it like a sword of Damocles, Rev. and Mrs. Arthur Konrad joined the work in 1936, learning the language with remarkable precision.  Soon he assumed responsibility for teaching Sunday School classes, preaching, preparing Sunday School lessons for the printer, and Scripture distribution out in the surrounding towns and villages.  In 1938 it seemed that the long-deferred Evangelical Church might be realized.  A class of 34 new believers was receiving instruction preparatory to believer's baptism, and the baptism of four was scheduled for a Sunday in September. But on the preceding day the four men were arrested and transported to Tirana where they were interned for two months.  There were no formal charges, and no trial.  Appeals proved useless.  Very obviously the Evangelical Mission had not yet achieved legal status.  The coming of Rev. Lajos Parragh of Budapest, Hungary, was a pleasant distraction.  He began language study, joined in village outreach, and helped in the reading rooms and Sunday School with French-speaking students.

The rest of the world was not concerned about Tirana, but about two madmen screaming in Berlin and Rome.  There followed the Italian invasion of 1939, the fascist occupation, the expulsion of evangelical missionaries, World War II and Albania's long, dark night (1940-1990).  The Enver Hoxha regime interrupted normal contacts with the West.  But an Albanian-American who operated a convenience store in the Boston area visited the homeland, and wrote as follows about the pastor of the Korcha flock. "As you probably know, my first cousin Koci Treska has been marked as an 'enemy of the People's Government' by the communist regime of Albania because of his religious beliefs and affiliations.  He was jailed and tortured for four long years, and now he is forced to work with pick and shovel.  His activities, if there are any, are closely watched by the secret police, and his correspondence censored.  For these reasons he cannot write to you directly."  But another wrote confidently that his witness while in prison again and again would not be forgotten by fellow-prisoners.  Another wrote cryptically, "Please do not imagine that we are sitting here with folded hands.  We gather frequently to sing with nostalgia the songs of the Kyrias brothers."  The postal censors examining all West-bound mail would not associate the Kyrias brothers with the one hundred hymns written or translated by them, and included in the mission hymnbook.  Risking detection, another wrote that they still possessed and read "the Old and the New," omitting, of course, the incriminating word "Testament," which could have brought him a ten-year prison sentence.  Although Tirana's atheistic regime boasted that they had eradicated all religions in Albania, roots like these went deep underground.

Albania's nightmare finally came to an end.  Enver Hoxha died in 1985.  The collapse of communism and the pro-democracy landslide in Eastern Europe shocked Hoxha's hardline communist successor, Ramiz Alia.  Widespread demonstrations for political and social reforms were fueled by the disastrous Albanian economy.  Tirana could expect no relief from the communist states of the East, for their economies also were in shambles.  Tirana could only swallow her pride and appeal to the West for assistance.  But, again and again, Western aid was conditioned on the improvement of Tirana's scandalous human rights record.  Cautious movement toward reform began in 1990.  Tirana even decriminalized religion.  Evangelicals like other religionists promptly came out of hiding.  Of the approximately 100 evangelicals in Korcha at the close of the 1930s, only about a dozen still survived.  But when the hermit nation's doors swung open, and multiplied thousands of disillusioned citizens fled this "workers' Paradise," scores of waiting evangelical activists poured in.

In July, 1991 an international consortium of eleven mission agencies calling themselves the Albanian Encouragement Project (AEP) secured government permission to hold an evangelical gathering in the principal soccer stadium of Tirana.  Led by Brother Andrew of Holland, about 120 activists from 17 nations converged on the city.  They were hindered at first by their inability to widely publicize the meetings, but later they reported good coverage by State Television, Radio Tirana, the official Zëri i Popullit newspaper and others.  The meetings were officially opened by Prec Zogaj, Minister of Culture, who stated in his remarks of welcome, "The country needs spiritual things."  Nightly attendance averaged 2,500 people despite cool and rainy weather.  The speakers came from Holland, Italy, Sweden, USA, Canada, Germany and England.  Over 100 persons nurtured in atheism confessed the Christian faith, and 43 were later publicly baptized in the nearby lake.  Two missionaries with experience among Albanians in Yugoslavia's Kosova province were designated to pastor the two resulting "church" groups.  Evangelical work began immediately in several other cities led by workers from Kosova province.

One of these, Mike Brown, associated with Britain's Albanian Evangelical Trust, gathered the aging survivors in Korcha.  He wrote in late July, 1991, "There is now total religious freedom.  We can do and say whatever we want without fear of reprisal, either for us or for our friends.  I have an extended visa to live here.  Many people in Albania are hungry to read the Word of God and to hear the gospel.  Now I will get some Bible studies going, for these have been requested by our friends here."  The attendance of lifelong atheists at his public meetings ranged from forty to four hundred.  The public distribution of Scripture portions and Biblical literature, hitherto quite unthinkable, was now unhindered.  Recipients were enthusiastic, the distributors ecstatic.

Invariably these newcomers were shocked by conditions they observed.  The UN Assessment Mission in June, 1991, reported that "hardly any industry in the country is still working." Unemployment ranged from 40 to 90 percent.  The UNICEF Mission to Tirana reported in August, 1991 that Albania's per capita income was "by far the lowest in Europe."  The average worker, if he could find work, received about $30 per month.  Inflation increased inexorably, the exchange rate on the dollar rising from 7 leks to 50 in 1991, then to 105 the following year.  Agriculture experienced deep trouble, with rice, milk, oil, sugar and cheese being rationed and usually not obtainable, while eggs, fish and meat were nowhere to be seen.  Hospital equipment was reported to be "very, very old . . . 1930 Russian."  A doctor in a major hospital did not have even a stethoscope.  A surgeon had only one pair of rubber gloves which he washed between operations.  It is no wonder that Albania had the highest rate of maternal mortality in Europe.  Foreign observers were also shocked to see most school buildings destroyed, or having no windows, desks or facilities, no paper, pens, textbooks, no heating and no money.

In the face of such human need, evangelicals realized that although "man shall not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God," yet man does live by bread.  So as much as possible they distributed bread as well as the Bread of Life.  A Dutch missionary with AEP reported in November, 1991 that trucks and busses with relief material had just reached Tirana from Norway, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.  The Medical Assistance Program of Canada in cooperation with four other evangelical missions formed the Albanian Health Projects (AHP), and pledged $10 million worth of medical, dental and relief supplies annually for five years.  Most evangelical missionaries and their agencies engaged in such relief efforts.  They realized, though, that when needy people receiving relief listened to their gospel message, the evangelicals would be accused of "buying converts."  But rather than ignoring very real human need, they preferred to do good, even though that good was evil spoken of.

A researcher in October, 1992 attempted to tabulate the amazing evangelical presence in Albania.  He listed 40 couples, 25 single men and 22 single women working in Tirana and 14 other centers.  A more precise figure recently listed 204 evangelical activists.  They come from an amazing number of countries; Australia, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, Brazil, South Africa, Finland, Greece, Norway, Sweden, England, the United States, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Holland and Mexico.  Besides evangelism and church planting they engage in medical work, orphanages, publications, Bible translation, literature distribution, student work. agricultural counseling, school repairs and relief work. This is all so very incredible!

Several indicators make it apparent that Protestantism in Albania is at last achieving official recognition.

(1) The Gerasim Kyrias Centennial.  In 1991 The Albanian educators in Korcha wished to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first school for girls by Gerasim Kyrias.  It soon became obvious that few of them knew anything about Kyrias, even though his career was summarized in their Fjalori Ensiklopedik Shqiptar.  But they discovered that an American missionary, John Quanrud of Seattle, Washington, with seminary training in Sweden and Albanian ministry in Kosova, had done extensive research on Kyrias, ranging from Cambridge, England to Istanbul.  So they invited Quanrud to bring the address at the Korcha gathering.  They admitted ruefully, though, that it did seem strange that for a commemorative address on their Gerasim Kyrias, they should have to look to a non-Albanian!

(2) The Granting of Legal Recognition.  The Tirana authorities are accustomed to deal with religious bodies having a hierarchical organization with a responsible head man.  They hardly know how to deal with this large number of evangelical agents and agencies having no organizational relationship with one another.  Quanrud in his research discovered that Kyrias with his brother Gjergj, Petro Nini Luarasi and other patriots, had founded a (Evangelical Brotherhood).  So with a copy of their organizational seal, and guided by a copy of Judge Mançi's 60-year old draft constitution for an Evangelical Society, Quanrud drew up a constitution for a loose federation of independent evangelical groups of believers, and applied for its legal recognition.  The application process brought repeated frustrations.  But finally in May, 1993, a judge of the Court of Tirana granted legal recognition of this Protestant Vëllazeria Ungjillore.  Valid for all Albania, the Evangelical Brotherhood now enjoys legal recognition as a non-profit organization and a "juridical person," having the right to organize, maintain and represent a union of evangelical churches in Albania, to open a bank account, to own or rent property, to register vehicles, to hold public meetings, etc.  Invitations went out to known evangelical groups of believers, and last June 1 and 2 [1993] the Founding Congress was held, with over 50 delegates coming from 30-some Albanian evangelical churches and groups.

The delegates elected an executive committee, with Korcha's elderly brother Ligor Çina as president for the first year, and Quanrud as executive secretary.  The Korcha believers were delighted with this recognition of their former Bible colporter, for he had been jailed repeatedly by the police of King Zog, by the Italian fascists, and by the Hoxha communists.  Yet, in spite of all this, or possibly because of it, the elderly gentleman exudes a serene Christian love and evangelical faith.  Present at this Congress was a representative of the European Evangelical Alliance, who invited two representatives of the Brotherhood to attend the next international congress when action would be taken on the Albanian application for membership in the larger body.

(3) The Bill of Rights. This past April, 1993, the Albanian Parliament approved a Bill of Rights, Article 18 which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change one's religion, and to manifest it privately or publicly.  Diplomatic recognition by the United States government stipulated the adoption of basic human rights such as these.  Also the former American President Jimmy Carter was in Tirana very recently to urge legislators toward strict adherence to the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accord.

(4) The Albanian Bible Society.  Last May, 1993, a delegation from the United Bible Societies visited Tirana to encourage the establishment of an Albanian Bible Society.  The official Board is to include not only Orthodox and Catholic representatives, but these have agreed to admit two evangelical members also.  Our friend Quanrud was elected to the founding committee.

(5) The Evangelical Publishing House.  Having secured legal recognition of the Evangelical Brotherhood, Quanrud is now in the final stages of registering an Evangelical Publishing House in Tirana.  A lawyer has drawn up a constitution for this Shtëpia Botuëse 'Gerasim Qiriazi' (Gerasim Kyrias Publishing House).   A number of evangelical publications are in preparation, and official approval is anticipated any day now.

(6) The Albanian Encouragement Project (AEP). About 45 non-Albanian mission agencies have adopted a constitution defining the future role of the foreign mission agencies working in Albania.  The three executive members from within Albania include Quanrud and Mike Brown of England, serving in Korcha.

Well, praise the Lord!  Kyrias never realized all this, neither did Judge Manci, or Kennedy, or Jacques.  But after 150 years, Albanian Protestants are at last becoming recognized as an authentic Albanian religious community.  Many international observers eagerly watch the daily mail, and thank the God of history.

([Comments pertinent to Rev. Jacques were correct at the time this article was written.  He has, however, since this time, gone home to be with the Lord, in 1996.]  Rev. Edwin E. Jacques is a resident of Pittsfield, N.H.  After graduating from Gordon College and Gordon Divinity School, he received a Master's Degree in History from Boston University, and later the honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree from Denver Seminary.  Rev. and Mrs. Edwin Jacques joined the Kennedy work in Korea in 1932, having to leave there in May, 1940.  They have returned for visits to Albania in 1986, 1991 and 1992).

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