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Religion Sprouts in Once Atheist Albania, But How Freely?

December 27, 1995

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha outlawed religion in Albania in 1967. The ban is gone now, with the fall of the Communist regime, but controversy over religion has hardly stopped.

Dozens of religious groups now hold services, proselytize and compete for the 3 million souls of Europe’s poorhouse.

Hundreds of foreign evangelists have flocked in. But they are running into bureaucratic restraints to churches without a traditional base in Albania and they face strong opposition from leaders of the nation’s long dominant religion, Islam.

In pre-Hoxha Albania, the population was officially 70 percent Muslim, 20 percent Roman Catholic and 10 percent Orthodox.

Missionary John Quanrud, who has struggled for months to build an evangelical Protestant church in downtown Tirana, said Albanian officials often see freedom of religion only as freedom for those pre-World War II churches.

``We want a level playing field,″ said Quanrud, whose mission is related to University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. ``We’re asking that there be fairness, openness.″

The site for Quanrud’s church has been purchased and a blueprint of the three-story building approved.

But an Albanian Muslim neighbor has delayed things by objecting that the church would be too high. And comments from officials also reveal opposition.

``From a legal point of view, they have the right to build the church. From a moral point of view, not,″ said Barthyl Fico, a government official overseeing church activity.

Hafiz Sabri Koci, the leader of Albania’s Islamic community, also opposes plans for the church.

``We consider this a provocation. In a neighborhood where everybody is Muslim or Catholic, they have no right,″ he said.

The three long-time religious branches encounter no such problems.

In Shkodra, the largest town in northern Albania and historic center of the nation’s Catholicism, the Vatican has lovingly restored the cathedral _ which was used as a sports hall in Communist times.

The Catholic Church recently obtained a large chunk of real estate outside Tirana, the capital, to build a religious and community center. Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian by birth, has opened a mission in Tirana.

Signs of Islam are even more ubiquitous.

Hundreds of foreign-financed mosques have sprung up since the ruling Democratic Party won power in 1992. President Sali Berisha also took Albania into the Organization of the Islamic Conference, where it is the only European member state.

There is a Turkish college in Tirana. Foreigners are running some 20 Islamic societies in Albania, mainly in humanitarian activities.

Arab businessmen have established companies and opened restaurants, and Kuwaiti investors are building a luxury hotel in Tirana, the capital’s second Arab-financed hotel.

Koci, the Islamic community leader, asserts the dominance of the Muslim faith. Referring to American evangelicals, he says bluntly: ``We don’t want these sects.″

But not all Albanians feel that way. Two-thirds of the population is too young to remember the practice of religion at all before 1990.

Many also argue that Albania _ with a unique language, culture and wall of mountains that always kept it isolated _ traditionally espoused no outside faith with real enthusiasm. Several of the new mosques now stand unused.

Enthusiasm is not lacking at David Hartmann’s Sunday service in a theater at Tirana’s Arts Academy. On a recent weekend, about 200 people exuberantly sang and clapped in praise of the Lord, following English texts on a big screen while a small band played. Hartmann’s Bible readings were translated by an Albanian student.

``This is the most wonderful experience. People are so open here,″ said Hartmann, a missionary for the International Protestant Assembly Church in Springfield, Mo.

``People are hungry for God,″ he said. ``People worship God. They are excited about hearing the word of God.″

Some in the crowd indeed were genuine worshipers. Others clearly appreciated the service more as a distraction from the monotony of everyday life in Europe’s most downtrodden capital.

The question of genuine belief is one that plagues many of the 400 or so American and other foreign missionaries _ some from as far away as South Korea and Brazil.

``Early on, we found tremendous response,″ said Art Moore of International Teams, an umbrella for 26 evangelical groups. ``After some time, we found that many people were showing interest because they had ulterior motives _ jobs and going to America.″

Albanian writer Sabri Godo concurred. ``A large number of people, through religion, try to create a perspective for themselves, so they can send their children to study abroad or do some work for which they’ll be paid,″ he said.

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