Jehovah’s Word Soars in “the Land of the Eagle”
“THE Land of the Eagle.” That is what the Albanians call their country in their language. This country facing the Adriatic Sea lies on the Balkan Peninsula, snuggled between Greece and the former Yugoslavia. Although there are many theories about the origin of Albanians, most historians agree that Albanians and their language descend from the ancient Illyrians, whose culture, according to The Encyclopædia Britannica, dates back to 2000 B.C.E.
Albania’s natural beauty ranges from jagged mountains in the far north to long, white sandy beaches in the south on the Adriatic. The greatest beauty, however, lies in the people. They are warm and hospitable, lively and expressive, quick learners who passionately express their opinions with animated gestures.
A Visit by a Renowned Missionary
The attractive personality of the people and the beautiful scenery no doubt caught the attention of one unique traveler centuries ago. About 56 C.E., the well-traveled apostle Paul wrote: “As far as Illyricum I have thoroughly preached the good news about the Christ.” (Romans 15:19) The southern part of Illyricum corresponds to modern-day central and northern Albania. Paul was writing from Corinth, Greece, south of Illyricum. Saying that he thoroughly preached “as far as Illyricum” indicates that he went either up to the border or right into the region. In either case, he would have preached in what is now southern Albania. So the earliest known Kingdom-preaching work in Albania can be attributed to Paul.
Centuries passed. Empires rose and fell. Foreign powers came and went in this little corner of Europe until Albania became an independent state in 1912. About a decade later, the word about Jehovah’s Kingdom was again heard in Albania.
An Exciting Modern Beginning
In the 1920’s, a few Albanian immigrants to the United States who were associated with the International Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known, returned to Albania to share what they had learned. Among these was Nasho Idrizi. Some people responded favorably. To care for the increased interest, in 1924 the Romanian office was assigned oversight of the preaching work in Albania.
Thanas Duli (Athan Doulis) was among those who learned about Jehovah in Albania during those years. He recalled: “In 1925 there were three organized congregations in Albania, as well as isolated Bible Students and interested persons here and there throughout the land. Their love among themselves was so much in contrast with . . . the people around them!”*
The lack of a road system made travel extremely difficult. Yet, zealous publishers took up the challenge. For example, on the southern coast in Vlorë, Areti Pina got baptized in 1928, when she was 18. She climbed up and down rugged mountains, preaching with Bible in hand. She was part of a strong congregation in Vlorë in the early 1930’s.
By 1930 the preaching work in Albania was directed by the branch office in Athens, Greece. In 1932 a traveling overseer from Greece visited Albania to encourage and strengthen the brothers. Most of those learning Bible truth back then had the heavenly hope. Their reputation for being clean and upright people earned them deep respect far and wide. The work of these faithful brothers bore much fruit. In each of the years 1935 and 1936, some 6,500 pieces of Bible literature were placed in Albania.
One day, in the center of Vlorë, Nasho Idrizi played one of J. F. Rutherford’s discourses on the gramophone. People closed their businesses and came to listen as Brother Idrizi interpreted in Albanian. The zeal of those early, untiring Bible educators was blessed. By 1940 there were 50 Witnesses in Albania.
An Atheistic State
In 1939, Italian Fascists occupied the country. The legal recognition of Jehovah’s Witnesses was revoked, and their preaching work was banned. Soon afterward, German troops invaded the country. As World War II ended, a charismatic military leader, Enver Hoxha, emerged. His Communist Party won the 1946 elections, and he became prime minister. The years that followed came to be called the time of liberation, but they meant just the opposite for Jehovah’s people.
Gradually, the government became less and less tolerant of religion. True to their Christian neutrality, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Albania refused to take up arms and to get involved in politics. (Isaiah 2:2-4; John 15:17-19) Many were thrown in prison, without food or the bare necessities of life. In many cases, their spiritual sisters on the outside washed their clothes and cooked for them.
Fearless in the Face of Persecution
In the early 1940’s, Frosina Xheka, then a teenager in a village near Përmet, heard what her older fleshly brothers were learning from a Witness shoemaker named Nasho Dori.* The authorities were cracking down on Jehovah’s Witnesses, but to her parents’ displeasure, Frosina’s faith grew stronger. “They would hide my shoes and beat me if I went to Christian meetings. They tried to arrange for me to marry an unbeliever. When I refused, they kicked me out of the house. It was snowing that day. Nasho Dori asked Brother Gole Flloko in Gjirokastër to help me. They arranged for me to live with his family. My brothers were in prison for two years because of their neutral stand. After they were released, I moved to Vlorë to live with them.
“The police tried to force me to take part in political activities. I refused. They arrested me, took me to a room, and surrounded me. One of them threatened me: ‘Do you know what we can do to you?’ I answered: ‘You can only do what Jehovah lets you do.’ He retorted: ‘You must be crazy! Get out of here!’”
That same loyal spirit characterized the Albanian brothers throughout those years. By 1957 a peak of 75 Kingdom publishers was reached. In the early 1960’s, the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses arranged for John Marks, an Albanian immigrant in the United States, to visit Tiranë to help organize the Christian work.* Soon, though, Luçi Xheka, Mihal Sveci, Leonidha Pope, and other responsible brothers were sent to labor camps.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Until 1967 all religion was frowned upon in Albania. Then it was no longer tolerated. No Catholic, Orthodox, or Muslim priests could officiate at rituals. Churches and mosques were closed or converted into gymnasiums, museums, or markets. No one was supposed to have a Bible. The very thought of belief in God was not to be expressed.
Preaching and meeting together were next to impossible. Individual Witnesses did their best to serve Jehovah, despite being separated from one another. From the 1960’s through the 1980’s, the number of Witnesses dwindled to a handful. Yet they were spiritually strong.
In the late 1980’s, political changes in Albania inched forward. Food and clothing were scarce. People were not happy. The reforms sweeping through Eastern Europe reached Albania in the early 1990’s. After 45 years of the totalitarian regime, a new government allowed religious freedom once again.
At the direction of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the branch offices in Austria and Greece quickly set out to contact local Albanian brothers. Greek brothers who knew Albanian brought some newly translated Bible literature to Tiranë and Berat. Joy filled the hearts of the formerly dispersed local brothers as they met Witnesses from abroad for the first time in years.
Zealous Foreign Pioneers Spearhead the Work
In early 1992, the Governing Body arranged for Michael and Linda DiGregorio, a missionary couple with an Albanian background, to transfer to Albania. They contacted the elderly faithful ones, helping them come together once again as part of an international spiritual family. A group of 16 hardworking Italian special pioneers, or full-time evangelizers, arrived in November, along with four Greek pioneers. To help them learn the local tongue, a language course was organized.
Daily life was rough for these foreign pioneers. Electricity was erratic. Winter was cold and damp. People stood in line for hours to get food and other necessities of life. Yet, the biggest problem the brothers faced was how to find buildings large enough to hold the throngs of interested ones responding to the truth!
Pioneers struggling to speak Albanian learned that a language is only a means to an end. An experienced Bible teacher told them: “We don’t need to conjugate verbs perfectly to smile warmly or to hug our brothers. Albanians will respond to love from your heart, not perfect grammar. Don’t worry, they’ll understand.”
After the first language course, the pioneers got down to work in Berat, Durres, Gjirokastër, Shkodër, Tiranë, and Vlorë. Soon congregations mushroomed in those cities. Areti Pina, now in her 80’s and in poor health, was still in Vlorë. Two special pioneers were sent there to preach with Areti. People were amazed that foreigners were speaking Albanian: “Missionaries from other religious groups make us learn English or Italian if we want to learn anything. You must really love us and have something important to say, for you’ve actually learned Albanian!” Areti faithfully finished her earthly course in January 1994, active in preaching down to the very last month. The zeal that she and the pioneers showed was blessed. A congregation was reestablished in Vlorë in 1995. Today, three thriving congregations are busy preaching in that seaport.
Throughout the country, people were starving spiritually and had little religious prejudice. They devoured any and all Bible-based literature they received from the Witnesses. Many young ones began to study and quickly made progress.
Over 90 congregations and groups continue “to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number from day to day” throughout the country. (Acts 16:5) The 3,513 Witnesses in Albania still have much work to do. In March 2005, the Memorial of Christ’s death was attended by 10,144. Discussions with the hospitable people in the preaching work have led to over 6,000 Bible studies. Clearly, thousands will be benefiting from the recently released New World Translation in Albanian. Indeed, Jehovah’s word soars in “the Land of the Eagle” to Jehovah’s praise.
For the life story of Thanas Duli, see The Watchtower, December 1, 1968.
For the life story of Nasho Dori, see The Watchtower, January 1, 1996.
For the life story of John Marks’ wife, Helen, see The Watchtower, January 1, 2002.
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ETHNIC STRIFE MELTS AWAY IN KOSOVO!
Kosovo became a household name in the late 1990’s when territorial disputes and deep-seated ethnic hatred led to war and international intervention.
During the war in the Balkans, many Witnesses had to flee to neighboring lands. After the war subsided, a small band of them returned to Kosovo, ready for work. Albanian and Italian special pioneers offered to move to Kosovo to help the 2,350,000 inhabitants there. Four congregations and six active groups, totaling about 130 publishers, are serving Jehovah in this territory.
A special assembly day was held in Priština in the spring of 2003, and 252 were present. Among them were individuals of Albanian, German, Gypsy, Italian, and Serbian backgrounds. At the end of the baptism talk, the speaker asked two questions. Three individuals stood to answer affirmatively: an ethnic Albanian, a Gypsy, and a Serbian.
Thunderous applause broke out after the audience heard the loud simultaneous: “Va!,” “Da!,” and “Po!” from the three baptismal candidates. They hugged one another. They have found the answer to the deeply rooted ethnic problems that have plagued their land.
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Young Witnesses imitate the zeal of older ones
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Areti Pina served faithfully from 1928 until her death in 1994
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The first group of foreign pioneers attending a language course
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Eagle: © Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO