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Muslims and Christians Vie for Albanian Souls

February 17, 1993

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Muslims and Christians, including evangelicals from abroad, are locked in a struggle for souls as this small Balkan state emerges from Stalinist isolation in which religion was banned.

″We are part of a religious war,″ said Paul Murray of the Albanian Encouragement Program, a liaison office for 30 evangelical missions active in Europe’s poorest, and until recently, most rigorously atheistic country.

Murray, an Australian, is among about 120 evangelical Christians working in Albania with familiar missionary tools: food, medicine, clothing and hundreds of thousands of Bibles.

Muslim clerics accuse the foreigners of trying to buy souls in what was a largely Islamic society before the Communists took over half a century ago.

Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist who ruled Albania for more than 40 years, outlawed religion in 1967. He died in 1985.

″Belief comes from the study of the word of God, and not from gifts of food parcels or the promise of visas or scholarships for abroad,″ said Hafiz Haqsan Qytyku, 62, the mullah at Tirana’s central mosque.

Minority Christians and many nominal Muslims fear the post-Communist government is moving toward Islamic fundamentalism. They were angered when President Sali Berisha enrolled Albania in the Islamic Conference Organization, a group of Islamic states, without asking Parliament.

Murray expressed concern about ″the amount of money being pumped into Albania from Islamic countries, especially Iran and Libya.″

He gave no details, but some critics cited a large education and sports complex being built in the capital, said to be financed by Saudi Arabia. Berisha presided at the groundbreaking in December.

Before World War II, more than 70 percent of Albanian believers were Muslims, about 15 percent Orthodox Christians and 10 percent Roman Catholics.

From 1967 until Communist rule collapsed two years ago, mosques and churches were closed, clerics were jailed and public worship was supressed in this mountainous land bordered by Yugoslavia, Greece and the Adriatic.

The resulting religious vacuum, combined with poverty, makes fertile ground for evangelical Christians trying to gain converts. About half the country’s 3.2 million people are under 25, most are fascinated by anything Western and few have been exposed to the traditional religious rituals.

″I believe that most people in Albania are Muslim in name only and do not have a religion,″ said Mel Brumbelow of Decatur, Ala., who represents Help Others Prepare Eternally, known by its initials as HOPE.

His organization, established by the Orlando Baptist Church of Florida, runs a former state orphanage for 118 children. Radical Muslims criticize the operation severely, although the orphans might be destitute without the help.

Brumbelow denies allegations that he is proselytizing among orphans. ″We do not offer scholarships or visas, and are here to present the Gospel and give people a freedom of choice,″ he said.

Despite the advantage evangelical Christians might have in Bibles and food, Islam clearly is leading Albania’s religious resurgence.

At dawn in central Tirana, loudspeakers atop the minaret of the gleaming mosque blare calls to prayer. At noon, businessmen, peasants, bearded imams and veiled girls jostle for space in the prayer hall. Crowds often overflow to the portico and square outside.

Muslim leaders have wasted no time testing their power in chaotic, crime- ridden Albania. ″The state should consider the introduction of Islamic laws,″ the mullah said. ″They, not the police, can ensure order.″

When the government asked for suggestions on a new religion law, Islamic leaders urged that only the traditional Muslim, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths be allowed.

Catholics have help from the Vatican in their struggle for revival. It provided money to restore the main cathedral in the northern town of Shkodra, which the Communists had used as a sports hall. The cathedral reopened for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Orthodox Christians have been split since June 1992, when the patriarch in Istanbul appointed a Greek as Albania’s archbishop. His action pleased the ethnic Greek minority in southern Albania, but inspired a revolt among ethnic Albanians.

The patriarchate explained that, because of such a long period of Communist rule, no Albanian had the qualifications to be archbishop.

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