Ian Loring, an englishman, is the pastor of the evangelical church of Korca – a southern Albanian city – and has been for over a quarter century. He had never intended to settle here, admittedly. This is a story born of chance. “I went to Bulgaria in 1991 to help the local population during a great flood. From there I moved to Thessaloniki for a day, for logistical purposes, where I met some Albanian refugees. They had emigrated that same year, just as the communist system was on the verge of collapsing”.
Through that encounter, Loring was thus introduced to and fascinated by the Albanian situation, so much so as to move to Korca – founded in the 1800s and not far from the Greek border – home to the country’s oldest Protestant community, prior to the communist period. “I remember a dark and cloudy afternoon. There were many people walking through the streets of Korca and they were almost all dressed in black. It seemed to me as though they could have well been a herd without a shepherd. I felt as though it was a sign from God to be just that, their shepherd. I didn’t want to leave England, but the Lord’s calling was clear. And so it all began.”
Ian Loring has done important work since being at the head of the evangelical church of Korca. He rebuilt the community and relaunched the Kennedy Foundation, a legal entity tied to the evangelical church which provides social and medical assistance to those most in need. It manages a retirement home, an infirmary, a recreation center for Rom children and a facility for underage girls from underprivileged backgrounds or who may have been sexually violated. It also has social pastors who roam the city, visiting struggling families.
None of this existed in 1991: neither the church and the faithful, nor the Kennedy Foundation. Communism had eradicated everything, its regime aggressively opposed any creed. Many faiths were put on trial, some even being condemned to death and many buildings of worship were demolished. In 1957, it totally outlawed any religion, closing churches, mosques, seminars, Quranic schools and any such social organization tied to religion. State atheism was institutionalized and the idea of having a religious faith was considered to be against nature.
“When I arrived in Korca only five religious believers had survived out of the two hundred which were had been alive before the advent of communism. Some died of natural causes whilst others were persecuted. We had to rebuild from the ground up but these remaining five people were very inspired and so we were able to bring the church back to life. It was tough, sure, because spiritual faith had been totally removed from daily life; to think that those who have joined our church have only done so in the last 8 or 9 years. The people had gotten accustomed to the principles imposed on them by communist rule”.
That of Ian Loring was only one of the several testimonials of religious revival in modern Albania. Even Anastasios Yannoulatos – Archbishop of the Albanian autochthonous church – had to start again from scratch. Having reached Tirana in 1991, he was assigned the task of rebuilding the church from where there was only rubble. “We have to emphasize just what sort of persecution there was in Albania. It was quite different from that recorded by other communist countries. It was much worse here, becoming absolute in 1967 by being constitutionally sanctioned. Any expression of religious expression was banned from that year on. This didn’t last for just five or ten years” the archbishop recalls, “it carried on for 24 years”. He also remembers how the ban on religion had caused a generational gap in the clergy and, in 1991, the Orthodox church and other confessions had to call on religious people from abroad.
Today, Albania is once again a country where one can freely profess one’s creed but religion, unlike many former Communist countries, has not since become a key factor is civil or political life. It certainly has been such as to deeply influence society. For the most part it discretely remains within the private sphere. No one ever speaks of a Muslim majority or of a Christian minority. The idea of Vaso Pasha – poet of the ‘Albanian National Awakening’ of the 1800s – according to which the Albanian national religion is Albania itself, is often cited.
“Our model is very moderate and, more often than not, one only defines oneself as being Muslim or Christian in accordance with their ancestral traditions, rather than because of a true personal belief. Albanian society is one of faith,” says Artur Nura, correspondent for Radio Radicale from Tirana and renowned television conductor “but not in the strictly religious sense,” says Artur Nura, correspondent for Radio Radicale from Tirana and renowned television presenter. The implication is that there is no bigotry or instances in which religion dictates the political agenda or has a major influence on the general consensus.
In any case, the country still finds itself in a moment of transition for both the churches and for the relationship between citizen and faith. “Religious freedoms have only been introduced in 1991” says Altin Hysi, representative of the Albanian faction of the Biblical Society. “At the beginning of the 90s there was a great thirst for all that was previously prohibited, including religion. The situation has since changed; one’s relationship with God remains in the private sphere”.
In many respects, accepting a faith or not accepting it is a new type of choice. To this day, we Albanians are still searching for our own path to faith. The road is long, however, it is worth stating that each individual is free to make one’s own choice and, thus, can feel assured in this sense. We should not consider it as something handed to us. We finally are living in a society which allows us to confront this choice and we should celebrate this as an exceptional fact.”
The fact that the road to religion for Albania and its people is still long is demonstrated as a certainty by the Bible Society’s long-standing project to translate the Bible into Albanian. “Not to say that the text has not existed before, however, there has never been a truly faithful and integral translation from its two original languages: the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. We have assembled a team of translators, one for each Christian confession (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant). In 2007 we completed the translation of the Old Testament and we hope that in 2018 we will complete that for the New” affirms Hysi, explaining that this project, into which he has been immersed for years (attested by the hundreds of Bibles in his studio) is an opportunity, in many senses. It favours a collaboration between Christian churches, updates the sacred texts and helps the faithful to establish a rapport with the origins of their own faith. This too is a small breakthrough indicative of a change in religious attitude: one of many transitions that this country, long condemned to isolation by a repressive and paranoid regime, is now facing itself up to.
Translated by Liam MacGregor-Hastie