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Balkans: Albania's evangelical strife.

The Islamic world has been bitterly transfixed by the war between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. Unnoticed, however, is growing religious competition in Albania, a country with a Muslim majority which has suddenly found itself a hunting ground for Christian evangelicals.

FOR 45 YEARS, the only songs ever sung in the chamber-music room of Tirana's imposing white Palace of Culture were melodies of praise for the Albanian Workers' Party and its eternal leader, Enver Hoxha. Today, Hoxha is dead, Communism is a quickly fading memory, and the palace of Culture off Tirana's Skanderbeg Square is home not to slogan-shouting Marxists but to Bible-toting Mormons.

The Mormons are just one of dozens of religious groups - including Muslims, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Bahais, Seventh-Day Adventists and mainstream evangelists - seeking to spread their beliefs in this once-Godless country.

"We think our church has a lot to offer people in an atheistic society which had little to believe in," says Dr Thales H Smith, an American Mormon now serving as district president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Albania. "We stress family life, abstinence from alcohol, and activities for youth and women."

Such talk would have been blasphemy here three years ago. In fact, the very idea of Mormon missionaries in Albania would have been unthinkable. Under a 1967 law proclaiming Albania "the world's first atheist state", religious worship was outlawed, and anyone caught praying or even wearing a crucifix faced harsh prison terms of 10 years or more.

Since the Communists' defeat by the Democratic Party in March 1992 elections, many mosques that had been destroyed by the Communists or converted into gymnasiums are now being rebuilt with funds from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"Albanians are right now hungering for spiritual things," said a Jehovah's Witness missionary, Michael Di Gregorio. "As a result, some take advantage of that need and fill it with what may not be 100% from the Bible. They're exploiting the people, trying to make fast converts."

An American evangelist, Rick Anderson adds: "Most religious practices have gone by the wayside, and are only now being picked up again. To Albanians, belief in a supreme being is important, and they've recognised they were missing it. But they had no idea there were so many religions."

So many, in fact, that some members of Albania's parliament have proposed a law that would forbid any missionary activity not connected with one of Albania's four established religions - Islam, Roman Catholicism, the Bektashis and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In the meantime, missionaries have flooded into this impoverished nation of 3.2 people, establishing modern offices, equipped with telephones, fax machines, computes and laser-jet printers.

Perhaps the most successful group has been the Bahais, whose concept of a universal religion strikes a tolerant chord among Albanians. Dr Payam Payman, the Iranian-born secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of Bahais in Albania estimates his group has won 6,000 to 7,000 converts in the last two years.

"The Bahai faith's principles are so rooted in the hearts of Albanians that as soon as you speak to them about Baha u allah, they feel the truth," he said. "Right away, they accept it, and they start telling friends and families."

Yet not everybody is happy about the Bahai presence, least of all an obscure Muslim group which has published a tract accusing the Bahais of plotting - together with Jews - to destroy Albania's Islamic heritage. The tract, written by one Vehbi Sulejman Gavoci and entitled "Be Careful of Bahism," warns Muslims that (among other things) "Bahais believe that Jesus was crucified, which is disproved in the Holy Quran." It also says that Bahais "don't believe in angels and demons, even though their existence is proved by the Holy Quran."

Charles Cutts, an American evangelist living in Elbasan, an hour's drive north of Tirana, makes no bones about his dislike of Muslims. "The Muslims are taking 50 students a week to Istanbul under the guise of education," says Cutts, who claims to have preached also in Malaysia and Indonesia. "Before they did it with the sword, now they're doing it with money."

In fact, the most active Muslim organisation in Albania, Islamic Charity Project International, seems to stress investment over Islam itself. Hassan Yahya, the ICPI's public-relations director, says his organisation is funding all kinds of development projects in Albania, from a $100,000 chicken farm in Fier to an airline that flies four times a week between Tirana and Istanbul.

"We are using a new economic approach," says Yahya, a Palestinian from Jaffa who now lives in East Lansing, Michigan. "One deals with humanitarian projects, the other deals with profitable enterprises. We want to take the best of capitalism and communism."

The chicken farm employs 23 Albanians and has between 20,000 and 30,000 chickens. "If it succeeds, we'll increase the amount of money invested," according to Yahya, who also talks of his organisation taking over a $10m cobalt mine in Shkoder.

"The West has to know that Albania is no different than any modern Arab country where Islam is not practiced."
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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