John Blanchard visits Albania
Albania is only slightly larger than Wales and its population of 3.5 million is just a little more than that of the Principality, but there the comparisons end.
While Wales shares the benefits of being part of a modern Western state, Albania is the second-poorest country in Europe, with only Moldova worse off. According to Operation World, economic life in Albania ‘is almost wholly dependent on remittances from Albanians abroad, smuggling and foreign aid’.
Spiritually, the contrast with Wales is even more striking. Wales has a long history of gospel witness, punctuated by extraordinary outbursts of blessing, such as the well-documented revivals of 1859-1860 and 1904-1905.
On the other hand, Albania has had no consistent evangelical witness from post-apostolic times until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when a few colporteurs began the painstaking work of sowing gospel seed in exceptionally hard ground. Even by the late 1930s there was only one functioning evangelical congregation there.
As many know, Christian witness in Albania suffered a massive blow in 1967 when the country’s communist chief of state Enva Hoxha declared Albania to be the world’s first atheist country and turned it into the most tightly controlled society in Europe.
His government imprisoned, executed or exiled thousands of people, including many Christian leaders; one estimate says that 700,000 Albanians were killed or imprisoned. Private property was confiscated, all churches and religious institutions were closed down and countless Bibles destroyed.
The repression was so savage that the word for ‘God’ was officially removed from the Albanian language; even to use the word could result in imprisonment or worse. Hoxha was virtually decreed to be ‘god’; and in one instance a man was imprisoned and tortured for committing the ‘blasphemy’ of wrapping a newly baked loaf of bread in a newspaper featuring Hoxha’s photograph.
When John Blanchard visited Albania this year for the first time, he was not only able to see for himself the devastating effects of militant atheism, but also to get a picture of spiritual trends since the fall of communism in 1991, six years after Hoxha’s death.
He was told that, following that death, there was a flood of missionaries from the west, mostly from the United States. They mainly settled in Tirana, the country’s capital. Many were stridently Charismatic, majoring on promises of prosperity, healing and ‘deliverance’ available on demand.
There was also an invasion by the cults, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. The influx was so great that within five years Albania had more foreign ‘missionaries’ in relation to its population than any other country in the world. But when violence and civil anarchy exploded in 1997 most of them melted away, leaving inexperienced Albanians in charge of vulnerable church congregations.
John Blanchard’s ministered in Fier and Patos, in two churches, through the help of British missionary Will Niven, who at 33 years of age is the senior member of the Patos congregation ― now in its fifth generation of believers in 14 years!
Will Niven told John, ‘Paganism is the default setting for Albanians. Not even Communism could get rid of that. Religions such as Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and Islam are little more than a veneer hiding the real situation’.
There are currently only about 200 evangelical congregations in Albania and the number of born-again Christians may be no more than 1800. Yet the youthful, post-anarchy membership of like-minded evangelical churches presents a unique opportunity for growth and spiritual development.
Together with a church in Lushnje, the churches in Fier and Patos arranged a speaking programme for John Blanchard. In Patos he preached the gospel to 100 people in the Palace of Culture, and in Fier at two larger meetings in the public library. These were attended by many unconverted people. Will Niven said that he had never seen church members respond so well to these opportunities, and was moved by the way older people had accepted invitations from other family members to attend. Nearly 20 unbelievers have subsequently enrolled in Christianity Explored courses.
In Lushnje, John spoke twice, once to church leaders and once at a public meeting. His interpreter, Florenc Mene, told him that he had read all 650 pages of Does God believe in Atheists? in two sittings! — and that he had been praying for three years that he might one day translate it into Albanian, as he could see it having a significant impact in influential circles.
Returning to the UK, John Blanchard shared with Evangelical Times three of the most pressing needs for the churches in Albania ― the training of Albanian church leaders; the encouraging of the new generation of believers to work evangelistically; the provision of evangelistic and theological literature.
As evangelistic literature is one of his passions, and excellent translators are standing by to do the work, John would love to involve concerned Christians in the UK. Interested readers are urged to contact him as soon as possible on 01737 357501 or at [email protected]