We came to Albania very aware that we did not know what to expect. Albania was tagged on partly because we could not get into Syria and partly because the Apostle Paul claimed to have preached the word (in Acts) in Illyricum – modern Albania. The question was did Paul just get to the border with Greece or did he preach and establish churches inside Albania. Last night we had and amazing meeting with some monks and the Orthodox bishop of Tirana (after a 3.00 am wake-up and flight via Munich). In response to questioning the responded by observing that Paul would not have just gone to the border as there was no marked border. You were in Illyricum if you were in a town in Illyricum. They also helped us with many other questions we had about the Orthodox Church.
This was a particularly amazing experience as we had just spent an afternoon seeing and hearing about the economic and spiritual devastation of first Ottoman rule (1453-1912), Tyrannical rule 1913-1944) and Communist rule (1944-1991). Christianity was discouraged (you could not get a Government job) by the Ottoman rulers. Religion was banned by the Communists who destroyed many churches and mosques, converted others into museums or theatres and banished Orthodox clergy. Huge amounts of money was spent on 2,000 concrete and steel bunkers – ostensibly to protect Albania from foreign invaders; actually to protect the rulers. There was hardly any steel left to build houses. People starved to death – they made jokes about being so poor they had to eat grass. In the 1980s there was a lot of unrest, the Communists were voted out and democracy was established. It is still a very poor country – I walked down the street and found the cost of real espresso coffee was five cents in our money. I would be a lot more in the hotel where we are staying as we are in a new parallel tourism economy.
What was most amazing was the brand new (in 2012) Cathedral Church of the Resurrection in Tirana. It is a huge and very beautiful modern building with a beautifully finished auditorium downstairs where they do teaching and programs for young people. There are millions of people who have not had teaching for generations (like in Canada). The Orthodox Church has new special Offices for teachers and priests – like in Acts; which do Baptism and Marriage preparation in 3 to 6 months. New Offices have also been established for Youth Ministry, Woman’s Ministry and Helping People. Religion is not taught in schools so the Church works with local schools to use classrooms for religious instruction. This is critical as parents have not had instruction for generations – as in Canada.
The takeaway – we have seen with our own eyes that Christ’s Church cannot be destroyed by political and economic oppression as tyranny always fails. We have seen a proud people lifting themselves out of poverty by embracing democracy and Christian values of love and service. For most of us this is our first exposure to the Orthodox Church – and it is impressive. There is a spiritual resurrection going on in Albania. Let us give thanks and continue to pray for Albania!