John Bunyan goes to Albania

It would, I think, be fair to say that the country of Albania has had a troubled history.  In the outline which follows I hope I have not sacrificed accuracy to brevity – if I have, I can only apologise.  During the Crusades, the kingdom of Albania was set up by forces loyal to the King of Naples, only to be subjected to a series of invasions before being crushed by the Ottoman Empire just over a century later.  For the next 500 years Ottoman power over Albania was complete, only being weakened by Russian success in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.  Albania became an independent state as a result of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, first as a republic, then as a constitutional monarchy.

Albania’s independence was achieved later than that of other Balkan states, partly, some historians say, as a result of there being no official language, with the little literature that was preserved being written in local makeshift alphabets and with idiosyncratic spelling.  This, understandably, made communication between Albanian nationalists rather difficult!  An official language, with a standardised alphabet and standardised spelling, was finally adopted in 1909, largely as the result of the efforts of one patriotic Albanian, Gjergj Qiriazi.  Born in 1868, Qiriazi was a publisher and writer who worked for the British and Foreign Bible Society.  He also directed Albania’s first school for girls following the death of its founder, his older brother Gjerasim, a pastor in the Albanian Evangelical Church.  Gjergj Qiriazi also taught the Albanian language in a high school for boys.  He is particularly remembered for organising the first Albanian National Conference in 1908, which successfully united all Albanians behind one alphabet.   The following year, the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire plotted unsuccessfully to kill him.  He died in 1912.

In 1939, Albania was invaded by Italy; after World War II it became a Communist state under Enver Hoxha.  When Hoxha announced that Albania was to be an atheistic country, arrested and imprisoned believers, closed churches, and destroyed all bibles and religious literature, it seemed that the work of the Qiriazi brothers and other Albanian Christians had been destroyed.  Hoxha died in 1985, since which time Albania has gradually begun to emerge from its enforced isolation.

In 2018, to mark the 110th anniversary of the first Albanian National Conference, searches were made in the Albanian National Library in an effort to find examples of early printed literature.  Within the library was a section known as ‘The Forbidden Sector’; for years top secret clearance was required to access it.  And what was kept in it?  Albanian bibles, hymn books, Gospel tracts, Protestant catechisms, bible-based reading materials, and children’s bibles.  As it turns out, almost the entire printed literature of Albania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been published by the Bible Society or the Religious Tract Society.  To have destroyed these texts would have been to destroy the history of the Albanian language, and so the Communist regime kept one copy of everything and locked them all away, presumably hoping that no-one would ever want to see them.  Now they are being republished and causing great interest in academic circles, the media, and the general public.

Among the titles being republished is a text entitled ‘Udhёtari’, hailed as ‘a masterpiece of early Albanian’.  This is none other than a translation made in 1894 by Gjergj Qiriazi of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’.  In his introduction he wrote: This translation is a sanctified work by which we hope that many of our brethren will become true companions of this ‘pilgrim from this world to that which is to come.’  I thank the great Lord God, who has revealed The Way even unto me, that by His grace even I may be called a pilgrim travelling to the Celestial City – to that city where there is neither sickness, nor sadness, nor sin, nor death; but rather fullness of rest, joy, and eternal life. 

May God grant that Gjergj Qiriazi’s desire for the salvation of many of his brethren will indeed come to pass in these days!

Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His anointed, saying, “Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us.”  He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision.

                                                                                                                        Psalm 2:1-4

 After this, it was noised abroad, that Mr Valiant-for -Truth was taken with a summons.  When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it.  Then, said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am...

...When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?”  And as he went deeper, he said, “Grave, where is the victory?”  So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.    

                                                                                                                        John Bunyan