Some were not interested in losing their power and corrupt privileges. Others preferred to continue their religious life with a “straw God”.
The Qiriazi is a well-known family in the country but not many know that it was the gospel that motivated their work in education.
In Albania, there are about 20,000 evangelical Christians - less than 0.7% of the population. They continue to be a minority, but believers have a desire to offer the transformative power of the gospel to all of society.
Most members of the Albanese evangelical churches became Christians after 1991, the year the country left the Socialist past to become a modern republic.
But the first footprints of evangelical churches are to be found much earlier. “It was in 1892 when the first Albanian evangelicals, a group of few believers, decided to form an Evangelical Brotherhood (Vellazeria Ungjillore) through the leadership of Gjerasim D. Qiriazi, explains Ylli Doci, who now serves as the President VUSH (Vellazeria Ungjillore e Shqiperise), the Albanian Evangelical Alliance.
KORCË, THE FIRST EVANGELICAL CHURCH
Missionaries from the USA arrived to the south Balkans in 1870’s and to Albania in the beginning of 1900’s to work with youth, and “an evangelical church blossomed in Korcë. It was a small start, there were not many churches or denominations then”, explains Doci.
Later, during Communism, any form of religious expression was eventually prohibited and the testimony of evangelical churches almost disappeared with only about 16-19 believers alive in 1991.
But in the 90s a new generation of foreign Christian workers arrived. “We did not know much about what denominations they belonged to, Albanians just heard the gospel and came to faith in droves”.
A ‘WESTERN RELIGION’?
Did the presence of missionaries lead people to see evangelical churches as an ‘Western Religion’? “Yes, unfortunately… Even though we exist in Albania since the 19th century, and we want to put that in perspective.”
On the other hand, it is not totally bad to be associated with Americans, believes Doci, since the West in general is perceived by many Albanians as “a more progressive society, an attractive modern culture”.
RECOGNISED BY THE GOVERNMENT
The biggest faith groups in Albania are the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Sunni Muslim and the Bektashi. “And then there is us, we were recognised by the government 5 years ago as the fifth faith group. It was an important development reflecting the awareness of the contribution of Albanian Evangelicals especially during the Kosovar crisis in 1999”.
The Evangelical Alliance is now working to encourage the beneficial influence of evangelical Christians in all social contexts, but it has not always been easy. “Albania is a religiously pluralist country where relative peace and social harmony has reigned throughout our history but although limited in a few areas there have been some challenges with the more radicalised Muslims, and I expect that to be the case more in the future”, says Doci.
THE QIRIAZI AND THE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
What was the social impact of the first Albanian evangelicals in the 19th century? Just one year before the creation of the Evangelical Brotherhood, a special school was founded.
Gjerasim D. Qiriazi had become a believer in the decade of 1870 and later became the first Albanian employee of the British and Foreign Bible Society, led then by Alexander Thompson.
Qiriazi went to theological college and his two sisters and brothers also became Christians. The sisters attended an evangelical school in Istanbul. The oldest one, Sevasti Qiriazi, graduated from college and went back to Albania in 1891.
On October 23rd of that year, Sevasti started a school for girls in Korcë. There was only one Albanian school in Albania, which had been founded a few years prior to this one. “We were still under the Ottoman Empire and education in Albanian was not possible. There was not a real alphabet accepted by all.” The very first Bible printed in Albanian by the Bible Society (1827) was printed with Greek letters but consists in one of the first great contributions to the development of the Albanian language”.
The Qiriazi family found themselves in the midst of a movement for national re-awakening in Albania, “a national renaissance”.
“Nowadays, the family is well-known because of their contribution to the Albanian language, the literature, and to education. The Albanian school for girls, founded in 1891 by this evangelical family, set the stage for the emancipation of the Albanian women in a predominantly Muslim culture in which women were not educated at all”, Doci explains.
NOT MANY KNOW ABOUT THEIR FAITH
Now, “in every textbook which talks about Albanian education, you find the names of these evangelicals”. But the fact that they had a strong Christian faith has been watered down, especially during the Communist decades: “there was even a movie done by the Communists about this first girls’ school, with great actors… But their faith is not mentioned”.
“What we want to address in this anniversary is the motivation behind the desire to educate the Albanian people and particularly the women, who are the mothers of the younger generations”, Doci says.
‘HERE FROM THE VERY BEGINNING’
125 years later, evangelicals “have a great opportunity, because people know the contribution of this family”.
“It is wonderful to be able to tell the Albanian nation that evangelicals have been here from the very beginning of the national awakening and that from the very beginning have been contributing to the improvement of Albanian life and the women who would be the mothers of the young generation, for the good of all people and the glory of God. That is a message the Albanian people need to hear and understand, so that when they think about us, they know that we love the country”.
It is a matter of “credibility”, the President of VUSH believes, “people have to see your faith in action”.
“PRAY THAT ALBANIAN SOCIETY WILL BE IMPACTED BY THE GOSPEL”
Ylli Doci encourages Christians to pray for Albania. “Pray that we would be true to our God, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s why we are called evangelicals. Pray that we would highlight the gospel; and that in whatever we do in Albania, we would be known as the people of the gospel, the good news people. Without putting the focus on us, but on Jesus, on his love”.
“Do also pray for unity for Albanian evangelicals, pray that our testimony would be to love each other. Pray that the Albanian society will be impacted by the gospel with our everyday life”.
Doci concludes by saying that the goal of Albanian evangelicals is that “every Albanian will know somebody who truly follows Christ by the year 2020, and that is not too far away”.
Read speech given by Ylli Doci at celebration of the 125th anniversary of the school for girls (October 23, 2016): English and Albanian.