During the Communist years, an accusation frequently made against religion in Albania was that each religion was introduced by foreigners, used by foreign invaders as a tool to suppress and dominate the Albanian people, and fragmented the unity of the nation. The religions were sometimes numbered as three, namely Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic, subsuming the Bektashi sect within Islam; the small Protestant community was usually, though not always (as we shall see), ignored in such comments. The following references and quotations suffice to establish the fact that these accusations were deployed concerning religion.
Enver Hoxha’s Selected Works IV (The Institute of Marxist-Leninist Studies, 8 Nëntori Publishing House, Tirana, 1982) includes a section entitled On the role and tasks of the Democratic Front in the struggle for the complete triumph of Socialism in Albania from the Report to the 4th Congress of the Democratic Front of Albania, 14th September, 1967. On pages 295-6 Hoxha referred to “landowners and big merchants, bourgeois intellectuals and reactionary clergy, the dregs of our society, who had made common cause with the occupiers.” On page 301, concerning his perception of a fragmented Albanian society, he refers to the struggle against “bourgeois and revisionist ideology, feudal and patriarchal survivals, backward customs and religious prejudices, against everything that weakens the unity of the people,” adding that “the Democratic Front is the organization in which the political unity of the whole people is achieved.”
On pages 812-15, under the heading Intensify the ideological struggle against alien manifestations and liberal attitudes towards them his report submitted to the fourth plenum of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania, 26th June 1973 links “the encirclement of our country” and “the struggle against the influences of alien bourgeois and revisionist ideology … especially in the present conditions of the hostile imperialist and revisionist encirclement or our country … We are all witnesses to the major successes of historic importance which have been achieved … against religious, patriarchal and feudal ideology.”
This same fourth volume of Hoxha’s Selected Works returns repeatedly to the theme of religion serving foreign powers:
The struggle of our people, a people of peasants and herdsmen, is very interesting as regards their twofold, or better threefold liberation from the foreigners, the local landowners and feudal lords and from religion, which served the former two (53).
Was not the crushing blow dealt to religious dogma, that ancient plague, that poisonous black spider, in our country the most heroic, the most daring, the wisest, the most well-considered and the most skilful act? Was the abolition of the power of religion, along with its apparatus and personnel, an insignificant, conservative act? That was a centuries-old, spiritual and material structure. Our Party and people destroyed this structure within a few decades, but the fight to eradicate this cancer from the mentality of the people is still far from ended. A cure for cancer has not yet been discovered, but for religion it has been, and if a struggle is waged in this direction, consistently and with conviction, the cure will no longer take centuries but a few decades, a few generations. The fight against religious ideology is closely connected with the fight against imperialism (791–92).
We, Albanian Marxist-Leninists, … hated religion with all the power of our reason, because the revolutionary practice of our people had clearly brought to light the profoundly reactionary and anti-popular role of religious doctrines, which supported the feudal-bourgeoisie of the country and the foreigners who oppressed us (816).
Writing again two years later about the unity of Albania, in Laying the foundations of the new Albania – memoirs and historical notes (8 Nëntori Publishing House, Tirana, 1884:27), Hoxha expressed regret that:
…the past had left its mark on our society, blemishes which were obstacles to unity and made the creation of alliances difficult. Religion had done its work and continued to poison the minds and hearts of individuals. The clergy, the beys and bayraktars had striven not only to exploit but also to “subdue” and “tame” our brave and indomitable people, whom the regimes of the past had kept in cultural and political obscurantism.
The anonymous History of the Socialist construction of Albania (Academy of Sciences, Tirana, 1988:255-57) continued the theme: “Religion and its servants were made the target of the biting criticism of the people. At people’s meetings the evils they had done to the country were revealed. … The movement against religion and backward customs was among the more important directions of the ideological and cultural revolution. It strengthened the national unity further.”
Other writers confirm that these statements mean precisely what they plainly state, that such indeed was the perception of religion held and purveyed by the Communist leaders. According to The Economist (27th December, 1975:27-28) Hoxha portrayed religion as “the ideological tool of the foreign oppressor against Albania.” Peter Prifti in Socialist Albania since 1944: domestic and foreign developments (MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., & London UK 1978), quotes Hoxha’s words in his Report to the Democratic Front:
All the religious sects existing in our country were brought into Albania by foreign invaders, and served them and the ruling classes of the country. Under the cloak of religion, god and the prophets, there operated the brutal law of the invaders and their domestic lackeys. The history of our people demonstrates … how [religion] engendered discord and fratricide in order to oppress us more cruelly, enslave us more easily, and suck our blood (65).
The Protestant community was not always omitted from such charges. Enver Hoxha extended it against Evangelical workers, both foreign and native. In Rreziku anglo-amerikan për Shqipërinë: kujtime (Shtëpia botuese 8 Nëntori, Tirana, 1982, page 12) he wrote:
Zogu u hapi dyert agjentëve të spiunazhit amerikan, të cilit vinin si misionerë, siç ishte Kenedi, si filantropë dhe edukatorë si Erikson dhe Herri Fulc, drejtor i Shkollës Teknike në Tiranë, kuadër me rëndësi i shërbimit informativ amerikan … Të gjithë këta dhe të tjerë jo vetëm bënin punën e informatorit, por … kishin përgatitur njerëzit të tyre që të punonin në të ardhmen, hapur e nën rrogoz, kundër popullit shqiptar dhe pushtetit popullor që ai do të ngrinte.
[Zog opened the door to agents of American espionage, who came as missionaries, such as Kennedy, as philanthropists and educators such as Erickson and Harry Fultz, director of the Technical School in Tirana, significant personnel in the American information service … All these and others not only worked as informers, but … prepared their people to work in the future, openly and in secret, against the Albanian people and the people’s power which they would set up.]
The Economist (27th December, 1975:27-8) continues its article quoted above by conceding, “Historically Hoxha has a point. Whereas in other Balkan countries the church championed the cause of liberation from Ottoman Turkish oppression, in Albania the Orthodox church at times served Greek nationalist aims, the Catholic church served the imperialism of Venice or Rome, and the Moslems remained loyal to the Turkish rulers who were not evicted till 1912. Perhaps for this reason, Hoxha felt able to push the anti-God campaign … to greater lengths than in any other communist country.” This article focuses only on the Evangelical presence among Albanians, and it is no part of its thesis to explore the extent to which the clergy and adherents of other faiths may or may not have conformed to Hoxha’s depiction of them, and may perhaps still today wish to link their religion in some way with a foreign power or ethnicity. This article makes no comment on those matters.
The Albanian Catholic Bulletin Volume XI (Albanian Catholic Information Center, San Francisco 1990:90-98) carries an article entitled Nationality and Religion in Albania. It explains clearly the situation faced by the independence movement associated with the League of Prizren in 1878:
The preservation of Islamic culture, adherence to Islamic teachings, and the use of the Arabic alphabet symbolized attachment to a Turkish eastern culture. The choice of a Latin culture implied political allegiance with Austria-Hungary or Italy. Partisans of Hellenism wanted to preserve Greek Orthodox schools and maintain a Greek alphabet. … Albanians also complained that the Orthodox church confused the various nationalities on the basis of religion … any individual who changed religion also changed races.
This thesis does not dispute the fact that Christianity was introduced into Illyricum probably by the Jewish Apostle Paul and his Jewish or Greek associates, nor that when the church split into western and eastern denominations, the Catholic Church used Latin in its services and the Orthodox Church used Greek, down to modern times. It is not disputed that Islam was introduced by the Turkish invaders or that the language of the mosques was Arabic. It is recognised that during Turkish times ethnicity was identified with religion, so that Catholics were seen as Latins, Orthodox were regarded as Greeks, and Moslems as Turks.
The suspicion that the Evangelical community was also a threat to national unity was present in Albanian society in the 1920s and 1930s. A booklet entitled Protestantët janë Orthodhokë të parë (qëmoçme) (Dhori Koti, Korçë, 1931:47ff) contains a section beginning Protestantizma nukë prish kombësinë, përkundrazi i ndih shumë [“Protestantism does not destroy nationality, on the contrary it greatly assists it”]. The discussion runs from page 47–57, arguing “Ca mejtojnë me të padrejtë se qëllim i tyre është qëllim politik” [“Some mistakenly think that their purpose is political”] and asking, “Po ç’farë dobi kanë ata prej nesh” [“What advantage have they from us?”]. Foreign missionaries have come, it argues, not to disturb the nation but to teach Christian truths. Nonetheless, such a publication would not have been felt necessary if there had been no need to rebut the accusation of an Evangelical threat to national unity.
Following the close of the Communist period, there was still the a risk that the Protestant community would be granted no acknowledged place within Albanian society. In 1996, Rajwantee Laksman-Lepain, whilst working on a doctoral thesis about relations between religion and politics in Albania from 1844 till 1939, wrote in Human Rights without Frontiers (Brussels-Human Rights: Brussels, 1996:11) concerning the pre-Communist division of the nation into three recognised religious communities:
…that after the fall of the communist regime, the democratic power considered that the best solution would be to revive this system, even taking the step of establishing in the Ministry of the Interior representatives from the three recognized religions. These are civil servants paid by the state who at the same time defend the interests of their communities. … The religious communities (fe) are expected to consolidate the nation’s unity and identity, therefore all groups outside the three historical communities are perceived as factors of division.
In the same issue of the magazine, on page 18, John Quanrud wrote:
Evangelicals, if at all mentioned in the media, are usually represented as belonging to the “new,” “foreign” and “potentially dangerous” sects which threaten to disturb Albania’s delicate religious balance.
Quanrud does not support the statement in his brief article with any precise references or quotations, but in conversation he explained that he was referring to the period prior to the adoption of new religious laws following the fall of Communism.
Not only within Albania
Nor is it only within the reduced borders of Albania that Evangelicals have been accused of being clandestine agents of foreign powers. When Kosova lay under Serbian domination, the Serbian authorities mistakenly assumed that Protestant missionaries in Kosova had a political motivation or involvement. A book by Marko Luposhina entitled УБИЈ БЛИЖЊЕГ СВОГ (Kill your Neighbour) (Alpha, Belgrade, 1997) associates them and others, including Baptist pastor Simo Ralević in Pejë and Pentecostal pastor Anton Krasniqi in Prishtinë, with the American secret service, the CIA. In 1991, Stephen Bell, a British missionary, had two Albanian white fezzes visible in a minibus he was driving, for which the Serbian police arrested him, took him to Kaçanik police station, and held him for six hours with questioning.
The Evangelical Presence
There were not many Protestants in Albania prior to the Communist period. The meagre progress made by Protestants in the Balkans generally was assigned to this very identity of ethnicity with religion as far back as 1906, as Henry N. Brailsford explains in Macedonia: its races and their future (Methuen, London, 1906:74): “The real root of this failure is doubtless the simple fact that the Macedonian expects that his Church should have a definitely national and political character. A purely spiritual propaganda is beyond his comprehension. He never quite abandons the conviction that the American missionaries must be working in the interests of England or America.” The Evangelical faith was never taught or preached as belonging to, or expressing, any particular national, racial or cultural membership. It is a faith for all peoples, offered to all who will accept it. Nonetheless, it is a fact that both in Albania and among the Albanian diaspora, it has usually been preachers of Albanian language and blood who have introduced it and led the believing communities that were established. Foreigners may have helped in background support or later leadership, but the preachers were Albanians.
The story of the beginning of the Evangelical community in Albania is easily accessible and well-known, and need not be repeated here at length. Gjerasim Qiriazi’s own account of his period of captivity among brigands on his way to preach in Korçë, and the biographies of him by Skënder Luarasi and John Quanrud are all available in Albanian, and the first and last of them also in English. Qiriazi was an Albanian from Monastir in what is now the Republic of Macedonia. After Qiriazi’s death, the church he founded was led by another Albanian, Grigor Cilka, a native of Korça and ardent Albanian patriot, who died in the influenza epidemic which followed the First World War. Foreign missionaries continued the work till they were compelled to leave owing to the Second World War, and the leadership was assumed by another Albania, Koci Treska, who lived until 1991. It cannot be argued that the preachers who planted Protestantism in Albania were aliens.
The Evangelical movement in Kosova began as a Serbian-language work mainly amongst the Serbian minority, but it mutated eventually into an Albanian work, or, to express it otherwise, an Albanian work was grafted into the stump of the original Serbian work. At the 1922 Methodist conference in Novi Vrbas, Superintendent S. W. Irwin reported:
Also in Prishtina, in the same District, a church is being built. It was originally built with the means gathered by Miss Stone, veteran of the mission. And so a Methodist church could stand as the first Evangelical church in the Field of Blackbirds (Kosovopolje).
The Methodists, as a ‘foreign sect’, suffered a lot of pressure from the Orthodox, and by the early 1980s they had been scattered. One old Serbian lady remained, Vera Gapic, continuing to worship privately in her own home in Dardania. Her father had been leader of the congregation. Albanians did not come as she was a Serb and friction between the Albanian and Serbian communities had been growing seriously.
Eventually she was joined by two Albanian brothers, Anton and Nik Krasniqi, who had converted to Protestantism from among the Roman Catholic minority. Anton Gjergj Krasniqi was born on 26th January 1958 in Barani i Epërm, near Pejë. These three (Vera, Anton, Nik) began to meet together for fellowship, Bible reading and worship. Gradually a church grew from this root. At first, as it increased and became more public, there was translation from Serbian into Albanian, but gradually the work became increasingly Albanian in language and character. Anton Krasniqi completed two years of a training course for the Christian ministry at the Pentecostal college in Osijek, was appointed pastor of the Prishtina church on 5th May 1988 and remained in that position till 29th March 1999 when he and his family became refugees first in Skopje then later in Bayreuth, Germany. And so, as in Albania from the 1880s, we see a church emerge and be led by a native Albanian.
The Albanian Diaspora
Similar trains of events took place among the Albanian diaspora in Sicily, Thessaly and Thrace. In each place, a native Albanian was established by leaders of Albanian blood.
We begin with Sicily, where Albanians are known as the Arbëresh. The first of four main Albanian migrations to Italy took place in 1448-1450 when rebellion arose against Alfonso, King of Naples, in the rural areas of southern Italy. Seeking reliable troops to suppress with the uprising, he called upon George Castriot Scanderbeg who sent a detachment of Albanians who brought with them their wives and families. These Albanians quickly suppressed the rebellion and were rewarded with tracts of land in the mountainous area of today’s province of Catanzaro. Two years later another detachment of Albanian troops was sent to protect Sicily against rebellion and invasion. Their camps later became the villages.
The second migration was in 1462. The previous year, Ferdinand, Alfonso’s illegitimate son, appealed to Scanderbeg to come to the aid of Naples again. Scanderbeg landed at Brindisi at the head of five-thousand Albanians, raised the siege where Ferdinand was entrapped, and was appointed commander of the combined Neapolitan-Albanian armies, and crushed the enemy on 18 August 1462. When he returned to Albania, his troops remained in Italy and were rewarded with grants of lands east of Taranto.
The third wave of Albanian settlement took place in the years 1468-1492, consisting this time of refugees. In 1467 the Ottoman army invaded Albania. Scanderbeg, bitten by a malarial mosquito near Lezhë, died of a fever in January of 1468, and without his leadership the cities of Albania fell one by one to the sultan’s armies. Albanians escaped to the mountains or to Italy, where some settled in the underpopulated rural villages of the south. And when Venice was forced to cede most of her ports in Albania to the Ottoman Empire, more refugees made their way to Italy.
The final migration took place between about 1500 and 1534, and was comprised once more mostly of soldiers displaced by the Turkish invasions of the late 1400s. In the early 1500s, Emperor Charles V, hoping to block the Turkish threat to central Europe, recruited large numbers of Albanian soldiers for his invasion of the Peloponnese. He ordered the evacuation of two hundred shiploads of them from Greece, and resettled them among Albanian (Arbëresh) settlements of southern Italy.
The main Arbëresh settlement in Sicily is Piana degli Albanesi (Hora e Arbëreshvet), where the leading Evangelical family is the Petta family. Giuseppe Petta was born in 1932. When he was nine years old, the country was suffering from hunger under Benito Mussolini, and Giuseppe was sent to work as a shepherd. When he was seventeen, another shepherd, who was an Italian Pentecostal believer, came from a nearby village to work with the flock, and through his contact with him Giuseppe also became a believer.
In 1957 an Italian stonemason from Palermo, called Maniscalco, came to work in Hora e Arbëreshvet for some months, and being a Pentecostal believer he spoke to people about his faith and persuaded some to embrace the same beliefs and experience. These people was not of a high social status, but were farm labourers, nurses and similar – gente povera, contadini e artigiani.
Giuseppe grew up, studied, and eventually became a shopkeeper in Hora. He became acquainted with the people who had become believers through Maniscalco, gathered them together into a church, and became their leader. Today two of his sons lead the work. The present author speaks no Italian: conversation with them is wholly in Albanian.
The initial planting of a Protestant community among people of Albanian race, by one of their own number, can be seen also in Thessaly. By the early 19th century, the number of Albanians in southern Greece was estimated at 200,000. The Albanian population extended all over Attica and Megaris (except Athens, Piraeus and Megara), the greater part of Boeotia, the eastern districts of Locris, the southern half of Euboea, the northern side of Andros, the whole of the islands of Salamis, Hydra, Spetsae and Poros, part of Aegina, the whole of Corinthia and Argolis, the northern districts of Arcadia, and the eastern portion of Achaea, with small groups in Laconia and Messenia. In all these places, Albanian was the language of the home.
There was a Greek Orthodox family of Albanian descent in Vagia surnamed, Katërshosh (now hellenised as Catrisiosis). Dimitris P. Katërshosh was born in 1898 and educated till the age of eight. Thereafter he tended sheep for his father. He had two brothers and three sisters. His father had married one of his daughters, Ekaterina, to a Greek from Vagia, Ioannis Chalos (also transliterated as Tzelos or Tselos), then living in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the United States, where he came in touch with a Greek Pentecostal congregation. In 1922 Dimitris Katriosis’s father sent Dimitris to Terre Haute with two objects in mind: (1) to make money; (2) to persuade his sister and her husband back to the Orthodox Church.
Dimitris opened a fruit shop in Terre Haute, and he had various conversations and arguments with his sister and brother-in-law concerning Christ. He lodged downstairs with his sister and her husband, and the church met upstairs. One day, whilst they were praying and singing hymns upstairs, Dimitris went up to the meeting. He found everyone on his knees, and was amazed and impressed by their prayer and their worship. Before very long however, he embraced the Evangelical faith. This was in 1924.
His desired to return to Greece and preach the gospel there. He thought he was the only Protestant believer in Greece. The first convert was a barber, who spoke of Christ in his shop with all the men of the village. His daughter became the wife of Pavlos Catrisiosis (son of the Dimitris who began the church), who was pastor of the church whom I visited and interviewed in 1990.
By 1938, four or five families in Vagia had believed—mainly early on, in the late 1920s. The church now had two years to function before the war with Italy in 1940. Fear from the war became widespread in society, and in their fear many turned to the Lord. The years 1940 to 1946 were a period of great trial, from the Italians, Germans and British, and from the guerrillas of the civil war; but they were years that witnessed many conversions. The number of believers reached about one hundred—fifteen to twenty families.
In October 1988 I visited that part of northern Greece called Thrace, hard by the border with Turkey. In Feres (Ferai) I met an elderly man called Kostas Galahousides whose mother had been Albanian (Arvanite) and his father Greek. His wife was Albanian. His family left Albania for Turkey 250 years previously, and came to Greece in 1922, at about the time of the exchange of peoples treaty between Greece and Turkey.
At the time of my visit two or three elderly couples were meeting together in an Evangelical chapel to maintain a witness, holding their meetings in Greek. Socially, though not in the church meetings, the congregation spoke Arvanitika with each other. My host used to be an elder there.
The church in Feres consisted of twelve to fourteen people, all members of the same family, all of Albanian descent (that is, Arvanites). Sadly it has ceased to function, as members became elderly, died, and were not replaced with new members, and as the younger generation moved away. The photograph shows their meeting place in Feres.
Kostas Galahousides died in about 2001. His son Evangelos, who supplied some of this information in a telephone interview in 2009, now works with the Evangelical Church in Thessaloniki.
Tolerance and Respect
The above histories demonstrate that the Protestant faith is no alien body introduced into native Albanian communities by foreign agents, either with hidden agenda to do harm to Albanian unity for the advantage of their own nations, or as infiltrating a strange philosophy which conflicts with the essence of being Albanian.
Sami Frashëri offered some helpful insights and comments on this matter, as explained by Prof. Zija Xholi in Sami Frashëri (Shtëpia botuese “8 Nëntori, 1978:33, 38). First Frashëri expressed the same regrets over any divisiveness as Enver Hoxha feared a century later:
Përsa i përket bashkimit të Shqipërisë dhe të shqiptarëve Samiu thotë se “Shqipëria duhet të jetë një dhe e pandarë”, se “…të gjithë shqiptarëtë duanë të quhenë vëllezër dhe djemt e një mëmëdhethi të dashurë”. Në këtë çështje Samiu … sjell dhe disa elemente interesante, që ka rëndësi të vihen në dukje. Samiu ngul këmbë se ndarja e Shqipërisë sipas feve është një sajim i armiqve të Shqipërisë, një diçka artificiale që nuk pajtohet as me interesat e Shqipërisë, as me gjendjen reale.
[As regards the unification of Albania and the Albanians, Sami says that “Albania must be one and undivided”, that “…all Albanians want to be called brethren and sons of one beloved motherland.” In this matter Sami … contributes some interesting elements which it is important to make known. Sami insists that the division of Albania according to religions is a contrivance of Albania’s enemies, something artificial which is irreconcilable both with the interests of Albania and with the real situation.]
But also, Frashëri moved on to press for individual tolerance and liberty of conscience and faith. As Xholi explains:
Dhe në qoftë se ka ndarje në fetë, vazhdon arsyetimin e tij Samiu, kjo është çështje ndëgjegjeje e secilit, dhe se ajo nuk duhet të përzihet me kombësinë. Në kishë dhe në xhami le të shkojë kush të dojë sipas besimit të vet … Samiu … bëhet mbrojtës i tolerancës fetare, i çlirimit nga kthetrat e errësirës fetare …
Samiu, mysliman nga jugu, e thërret Pashko Vasën, katolik nga veriu, vëlla … patriotët e shquar e Rilindjes sonë Kombëtare e quanin njëri-tjetrin vëlla, kjo do të thoshte se midis tyre kishte lindur dhe vepronte një solidaritet i ri, shumë më i fuqishëm nga dasitë fetare …
[And if there is separation into religions, Sami continues his argument, this is a matter for the individual conscience, and that it must not be mingled with ethnicity. Let those who wish attend church or mosque, according to his own convictions … Sami … becomes the protector of religious toleration, of release from the claws of religious darkness.
Sami, a Muslim from the south, calls Pashko Vaso, a Catholic from the north, brother… distinguished patriots of our National Rebirth called one another brother, this means that among them a new solidarity had been born and was operating, much more powerful than the religious divisions.]
Religious adherence without the believing faith of mind and heart may indeed be considered a form of spiritual darkness, and if inherited or imposed religious affiliations are the cause of internal divisions within a people, that is a greater evil.
This article has considered the view that all religions, including Evangelical, are foreign imports into Albania introduced to serve the interests of hostile or rapacious nations. It has demonstrated that this depiction was current before, during and after Communism. The links or even identity at various periods with Albania of Islam with Turkey, Orthodoxy with Greece, and Catholicism with Italy and Austro-Hungary contributed to the meagre spread of Protestantism amongst the Albania people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for it made the common people incapable of conceiving a religion which was a matter of personal heart’s persuasion regardless of nationality. The charge that Evangelicals were covertly serving the interests of inimical foreign nations was also propagated in Kosova under the Serbs: it was not peculiar to pre-War Albania or the Hoxha years.
The article has then demonstrated that, in contrary reality, in Albania, Kosova and the Diaspora it has been Albanians who have introduced the Evangelical faith and led the resultant communities. That faith in no way militates against a genuine and continuing Albanian identity, nor does it pose a cultural or political threat. This writer hopes that it will enjoy a secure and continued place within Albanian life, such as Gjerasim Qiriazi and his associates would have wished for it when they first preached it so many years ago.
David M. Young, MA, M Phil.