ALBANIA 7-23 MARCH 2018

Another trip to Shqipëria The Land of Eagles. A place where I have made many friends, and always enjoy a warm welcome. Enjoy the nine posts, scrolling down to start at number one.

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9. CRETAN CONNECTION

Albanians are survivors, there are more of the population living outside the country than inside. My first introduction to Albanians was in Loutro, Crete, where I met Goni & Kela. They have become special friends, and that first connection has served to underpin my friendship with Albania and its people.

Visiting this year in March has enabled me to spend time with some of those Albanian friends who I know from the Sfakia area of SW Crete. Bio, Mondi and Spiro treated me to a most glorious lunch in the most out of the way eating place I could imagine. Full of Albanian men, eating and drinking! – not the most pc of places, but such a delight! The meal started with ash trays being set on the table, and then for nearly four hours, dish after dish of Albanian food was put before us, and I lost count of the litre carafes of red wine – what a treat. Albanians truly are a most hospitable nation.

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8. ALBANIAN FAITH COMMUNITIES

Enver Hoxha’s 41-year dictatorship locked the nation into subjugation, firstly following Marxist–Leninist dogma, then the Maoist ideology, and finally in the late 70’s Hoxha asserted independence from any ally or trading partner. In 1967, he declared the country the world’s first secular atheistic society, banning the practice of faith, demolishing churches, mosques and synagogues, executing priests and imams. Meeting to worship and pray risked death or brutal imprisonment.

Since the fall of communist regime in 1991 faith groups have re-emerged. The nation has distinct cultural elegances (not radical) to faith –  Muslim: 59%, Roman Catholic: 10%, Orthodox: 7%, other: 6% these figures are based on a 2011 census, and are much argued. The Roman Catholic Cathedral was first to be rebuilt, then the Orthodox Cathedral with its wonderful cultural centre underneath, and currently a new mosque is nearing completion which will accommodate 4,500. During the early years of emergence from communism many protestant evangelical churches brought aid and humanitarian support to the county, and now have established churches. The prayer is that the mix of faith groups will engage more and develop a more mutual dialogue.

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7. ELONA AND THE ALBANIAN BLOOD FEUD

I was pleased to have a coffee meeting with Elona Prroj who has established a special ministry to address the challenging gjakmarrja or blood feud, part of the ancient Albanian Kanun code of behaviour, still prevalent in the north. Elona’s husband Tani a church pastor was killed through this code in 2010. Her organisation No Blood Feud, Yes to Life Foundation speaks to governments, the European Union and churches (across the denominations) about this evil practice. Elona is a good friend and supporter of Rachel and the Shkëndijë Foundation.

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6. INTRODUCING NATHAN & GABRIEL TO TEK URA

One of the things I enjoy most in Albania is to meet people from all corners of the faith community, and those with no faith – and introducing them to each other. Tek Ura is Baptist Missionary Society enterprise which serves some of the Roma community in the Kafen e Rremes area of Tirana. The founders are Mat and Dan & Annie (who know FACT well through their children’s visits to FACT summer courses). They have established Tek Ura (at the bridge) as an Albanian not-for-profit. They provide social education, work to improve living conditions and provide simple but meaningful engagement – celebrating diversity. They are also significantly engaged with faith and community work, which is bearing fruit in an emerging church of more than 40 people.

Dan talked about their need to find solutions to improve the drinking water quality of the Roma community. While with them, just an email connection away, we linked with FACT’s Lizzie White who works in Peru with Serving in Mission (SIM), she’s a water engineer, and now is offering technical advice to Tek Ura on water filtration ideas.

And most important, it was a privilege to introduce Nathan & Gabriela Hoppe from the Albanian Orthodox Church to Tek Ura. Nathan & Gabriela lead the huge children’s programme within the Orthodox Church, and the church also work on many other community fronts. They are now keen to link more with Tek Ura to glean ideas to better develop deeper engagement in their areas of ministry.

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5. TIRANA’S CHANGING APPEARANCE

Each year Tirana changes. There were high hopes a couple of years ago when Edi Rama the socialist prime minister was elected, but cynicism and accusations of corruption still abound. Mr Rama, an artist and moderniser has literally painted the city with hopefulness, and this year the frenetic Skanderbeg Square with its crazy traffic roaring round, has been transformed into a sea of marble in the new plaza. A scheme to pedestrianize and green the city. But the people continue struggle for employment and even simple services.

The iconic bunkers have gone, and the buildings are brighter. The secrecy of the Sigurimi police is being revealed through underground bunkers and rooms being opened to the public – something which many have qualms about – Albania’s emergence from communist tyranny is not a generation away.

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4. OVERNIGHT TRIP TO PRËSHTINË, KOSOVË

Albania has a very strong bond with Kosovë. Many Kosovans became refugees in Albania during the 1998/99 war, and strong friendships were formed. The country is gradually emerging from the conflict.

Shkëndijë is planning to partner with churches in Prështinë, Gjilan and Gjakova to present children’s work training using the Van. Rachel, Olti and I travelled the four-hour journey to Preshtinë on the big new road. Eleven coffee meetings were organised with various church leaders in the city and other towns. For some reason, our city meetings were in the Hotel Grande, which Trip Advisor rates as ‘truly awful’ and ‘horror!’ – perhaps the next project for the country.

I had some time-out in the city, exploring some interesting buildings, and to see gathering signs of recovery. The meetings were fruitful, and we’re planning church partnership training in the autumn.

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