Rediscovering God in Albania

February 06, 2014

All churches and religious institutions were shut down when communist dictator Enver Hoxha declared Albania to be an atheist nation in 1967. The government prohibited parents from giving their children Biblical names.

“I didn´t want to do it.”

Generations of Dhimiter´s * family had worshiped in the centuries old Orthodox church. His parents dedicated him here as a baby, committing to teach him to know and walk with God all the days of his life. Now the Albanian teen faced a terrible dilemma.

Anguished, he looked around the sanctuary at the crucifix, the paintings of saints he had revered, the candlesticks and linens on the altar table.

“My hands were shaking when I touched those beautiful things. I wouldn´t dare destroy some of them,” he recalled.

Government soldiers posted in front of the church barked menacing orders for him and the other boys to remove–and smash–every sacred object.

Dhimiter jumped out of a window, but there was no escape. Someone spied him trying to leave the premises and alerted a guard.

“I was brought before all of the soldiers,” said Dhimiter. “They demanded to know why I wasn´t joining the others in pillaging the church. They accused me of defying orders.”

The authorities went to Dhimiter´s home and interrogated his parents. He feared his family would be punished, maybe even imprisoned.

Now in his 60s, Dhimiter remembers the searing guilt he felt as a teenager when he was conscripted to join a youth gang that ravaged churches in his hometown of Lushnje.

“It was a difficult time for all of us. When the authorities found out my parents were believers, they started to persecute them,” he said. “It was God who helped us through these hard situations.”

For much of his life, Dhimiter lived under severe religious oppression imposed by communist dictator Enver Hoxha. In 1967 the government banned all religious activity and declared Albania an atheist nation. More than 2,000 churches and mosques were closed. Most were heavily damaged or destroyed; others were used as armories or warehouses. Clergy were imprisoned and, in some cases, executed. Parents could not give their children Christian names.

Families faced harsh punishment if Bibles or any religious symbols were discovered in their homes. As a result, most parents would not speak about faith matters with their children for fear they would innocently tell other children and the entire family would be thrown into prison.

Religious freedom returned gradually following the death of Hoxha in 1985. In the interim, however, a generation of youngsters has grown up in essentially a faithless society. For adherents of Islam, the dominant religion, and Christianity, faith is viewed as a by-product of one´s family heritage, with little relevance to daily life.

Filling the spiritual vacuum

Children take reading and computer classes at the church´s educational facility, called “Victory School.”

Pastor Albert “Berti” Dosti has committed his life to drawing Albanians back to the God of the Bible. During the 1980s, the army captain served on a communications team that monitored the airwaves for any information that might indicate an American invasion. In the middle of a long shift one evening, he fiddled with the dial and happened upon a broadcast of Trans World Radio. The Christian station produced a 15-minute program five days a week in the Albanian language.

In his early 30s at the time, Dosti knew little about God. From childhood he had been taught that God did not exist. Yet the broadcast captivated him, and he began to tune in each week, despite the risk of severe punishment if his actions were discovered.

Dosti eventually became a believer and felt called to lead others to Jesus Christ. Today he serves as the pastor of Way of Peace Evangelical Church, a thriving congregation of some 100 people in the city of Lushnje. From his church office, he now records messages that are broadcast via Trans World Radio throughout Albania and Kosovo.

Opening hearts that have long been closed off to God is not easy, however. With atheism entrenched in their psyche, Dosti realized many Albanians would never step foot in a church nor listen to a Christian radio program. He needed another means, some type of outreach that would appeal to people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, so they would have an opportunity to hear about the Savior.

Dosti´s vision became a reality several years ago when the church acquired a building next door and opened it up to the public for much-needed language and vocational classes. Due to high unemployment, many young adults leave the area in search of jobs in Tirana, Albania´s capital.

Called “Victory School,” the educational facility has far exceeded Dosti´s dreams as a place to provide practical skills and share the gospel.

Six days a week, the school hums with activity. Elementary and high school students come for supplemental English and computer instruction, knowing proficiency in these subjects is the key to their future success. Ladies of the church volunteer their time to teach sewing classes for the community.

Due to a demand for more classroom space, the church wants to construct a second floor addition to the school.

The instructors discuss their faith in Jesus Christ and aspire to be godly examples inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to academic pursuits, Bible studies are offered for teenagers and men´s and women´s groups. And the local body of believers keeps growing.

A Christian Aid Mission partner visited Dosti´s ministry last fall and was excited to see the fruits of the outreach. “The church is packed because of the school, and young people make up about one-third of the congregation,” he said. “Some are the grandchildren of believers who crawled out from under communism and can now speak of the Lord.”

“These older believers are the backbone of this church. Because they survived the persecution, it made them stronger,” he said. “Now they have a voice and they are speaking with passion about their Lord. It´s a beautiful thing to see.”

One of those backbone members is Dhimiter, an elder at Way of Peace Church. Only tears can express how thankful he is to worship God freely after decades of silence. He is especially grateful that his 21-year-old grandson grew up in a home where Christ is exalted. That´s a blessing Dhimiter will never take for granted.

“God was in my heart and my mind during all of those years of persecution,” he said. “Now I can declare openly that I believe in Jesus Christ and my family does too. I want all of my friends to believe in Christ.”

With the increased need for more space, Dosti would like to build a second floor addition to Victory School. At a cost of about $55,000, the plan calls for the construction of four rooms that will be used for additional classroom space, child care, and a library.

* (name changed)