The Growth of Christianity in the World’s First Atheist Country

When Asim Hamza was growing up in communist Albania in the 1980s, it was the third poorest country in the world. The farm technology hadn’t been updated since the 1920s. Lines for milk stretched 80 people long before dawn. Pharmacies carried nothing but aspirin. Electricity didn’t reliably turn or stay on. Religion was outlawed—making the sign of the cross could land you in jail for three years, owning a Bible was five years.

Hamza had no idea anything was wrong.

The government-controlled television, during the two or three hours it was on each day, showed images of children starving in sub-Saharan Africa. “We were told that was happening everywhere,” Hamza said. “They said, ‘You are the happiest kids in the world.’ And we believed it. We were so thankful to the Communist party leader.”

Back then, “Albania was one of the three most closed countries in the world, along with North Korea and Mongolia,” Campus Crusade for Christ missionary Don Mansfield said. He became Cru’s country director for Albania in 1991, when the communist government began to topple. He’d never been there before.

“I remember I was in a meeting in Holland with all the global missions agencies,” Mansfield said. “At the time, I didn’t know anything. They were talking about what was going on, and I raised my hand. I asked, ‘How many believers are there in the country?’”

He was expecting a guesstimate, or maybe a percentage of the population.

“Do you know Sonila?” one person asked.

“Kristi?” suggested someone else.

“Maria is a Christian.”

“People were throwing out names, and I got to 16,” Mansfield said. “Everybody looked around and went, ‘Does anybody else know anyone else?’”

No one did. But today, Mansfield could name hundreds. The Joshua Project estimates there are 17,000 evangelical believers in the country. While half of that growth came in the first decade the country was open, the evangelical growth rate is still nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (4.6 percent compared to 2.6 percent).

“It’s been a remarkable story of seeing what God has done in one lifetime,” said The Orchard Evangelical Free Church senior pastor and TGC Council member Colin Smith, who spoke at the region’s first TGC conference in 2019. “It’s an amazing change.”

To be sure, “we’re still small, and we’re not significant in the eyes of this world,” Light Church Tirana lead elder and TGC Albanian Council member Andi Dina said. “But we have a big God, and we worship him. We know he’ll build his church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.”

World’s First Atheist State

Even before supreme ruler Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheist state in 1967, evangelicals were few and far between. The population was primarily Muslim (70 percent, a heritage from the Ottoman Turks), followed by Greek Orthodox (20 percent, primarily along the border with Greece) and Roman Catholic (10 percent, mostly along the sea that separates Albania from Italy).

The evangelical Christians—by one count there were about 100—were largely gathered around a Baptist mission in the city of Korce. But the week after Pearl Harbor, the government kicked all American missionaries out. (Italy, a member of the Axis, was then occupying Albania.)

Foreign missionaries wouldn’t be allowed back for another 50 years. Hoxha, who came to power after World War II, didn’t just believe religion was opium for the masses. He also saw it as an issue of state security—Roman Catholicism meant influence from Italy, Orthodoxy came straight from Greece and Serbia, and Islam meant interference from Turkey. To allow Protestants would mean meddling from the West. Not only was practicing religion illegal, then, but so was believing it.

Hoxha’s enforcers started by burning four Franciscan priests to death, then turned mosques and churches into factories (minarets became chimneys) and shot an elderly Catholic priest for baptizing children. Hundreds of clergy were tortured and imprisoned for decades, forced to do hard labor in mines and sewage canals. Government-produced films that accused clerics of corruption, corroborating with foreign powers, and arranging forced marriages were broadcast over and over on the television channel. Newspapers mocked religious leaders on trial for being traitors.

Eventually, Albania’s borders were sealed so tightly—against both the democratic West and the communist Soviet Union and China—that nobody could get in to see what was going on, much less evangelize.

But that didn’t keep the Bibles out.

By Air and Sea

Albert Kona grew up in the town of Durrës, on the Adriatic Sea. In his childhood photos, you can count his ribs. He remembers his parents getting up at 2:00 a.m. to stand in line for bread or milk.

His family had been Eastern Orthodox, though he didn’t know that. One day, when playing in an antique wooden trunk of his grandmother’s, he found part of an old book with some pages ripped out. In it, he read about Peter and John.

He wasn’t the only one to get his hands on Bible stories. After World War II, some American GIs flew over Albania and tossed out Bibles attached to parachutes. Most of them were gathered up by the government, but one man found about 12 chapters from the Gospel of Luke. “He understood who Jesus was and what Jesus had done,” said Kona, who met the man years later, after the country opened up. “He had a true and simple faith.”

In 1985, an Operation Mobilization (OM) ship anchored 12 miles off the Albanian coast, just far enough out to be in international water. Those on board dropped copies of the Gospel of Mark, freshly translated into Albanian, into gallon-sized ziplock bags. They blew each bag up with air so it would float. Then when the tide was just right, they plopped the Bibles into the water, praying they’d wash up on shore. In Kosovo, OM staff were standing on the banks of rivers that flow into Albania, doing the same thing.

“That was about all you could do,” Mansfield said. Some Swiss Christians had tried to smuggle Bibles in on a rare visit, but when they got to the airport, all the Bibles they’d surreptitiously given out were returned to them. “You forgot these,” the government officials said.

Even after Hoxha died in 1985, the country remained locked down. It was another six years before the borders finally opened. It had been five decades, and nobody knew what to expect. Mansfield remembers walking to the beach on his first visit, the people moving away from him.

Then three young men swaggered toward him, unafraid, asking questions. “Where do you come from?” “What do you do?”

“I have the most amazing job on the planet,” he told them. “I get to tell people how they can know Jesus Christ.”

The leader, Leonard, turned to look at his friends. “Wasn’t it five minutes ago, we were talking, and we said, ‘We have got to find someone to tell us about Jesus’?” he asked them, astonished. Then, turning to Mansfield, he offered the easiest evangelistic opening there is: “Will you tell me about Jesus?”

Stunned, Mansfield shared the gospel with the young men. Only later did he wonder how Leonard even knew to ask about Jesus. When he asked, Leonard said he used to work for the coast guard. One day while on the beach, he’d found a ziplock bag with a Gospel of Mark tucked inside.

“God will have his way,” said Mansfield, who still tears up over the story. “When God wants to move, he’s going to move.”

‘Tell Me About Jesus’

Early missionaries to Albania quickly found that Leonard’s curiosity about Jesus wasn’t unusual. After 40 years of state atheism, 24 of those with violent enforcement, previous ties to Islam or Catholicism or Orthodoxy were weak. When one young man told his parents he’d come to faith in Jesus, they told him he couldn’t because he was Muslim—he hadn’t even known. (He stuck with Christianity.)

“You dream of people saying, ‘Tell me about Jesus,’ and they did,” said Tammy Doçi, who was on Campus Crusade’s first official summer mission to Albania in 1992. “We’d go into a women’s dorm room and they’d say, ‘Wait, let us go get our friends first.’ Before we knew it, we’d have 18 women packed onto the bunk beds, listening intently and asking questions.”

Patrick and Alicia Havens were on the same summer trip. “One kid looked at me, grabbed my arm, and said, ‘Hey, are you here telling people about Jesus?’” Patrick remembers. “People were so ready.”

“I remember one family—we’d see them every day,” Alicia said. “The father would come over and say, ‘My son needs one more lesson. Please tell us more. Please give us a Bible, because we want to know what is true.’”

After a few months on the ground, Crusade’s summer missionaries to Europe gathered together. “We were all celebrating conversions,” she said. “We cheered over 10 in Hungary, and then like 450 in Albania. You realize, ‘Oh my goodness—something is happening here.’”

One of those converts was Kona, who loved to read. His friend snagged him a New Testament from some OM missionaries. He was puzzled by the verse numbers. “I thought they were footnotes, but strangely they were at the beginning of each sentence, and there were too many of them,” he said. “Also, there was no footnote text. So I thought I had only half the book.”

It didn’t slow him down. He stayed up all night reading. “By 4:00 a.m. I had gotten to the end of Romans, and I knew exactly who I was, what I had done, what Jesus had done, and what I needed to do,” he said. “I’d never seen anybody pray before, but for some reason I knelt by my bed and I prayed what I thought was a prayer. I felt that something happened, and I also felt a great desire to do unto others what that person had done to me by giving me that book.”

The next day, he attended an OM worship service with about 40 others. He jumped right into evangelism, hospital visitation, and village outreach.

“We had what Jonathan Edwards would call a window of grace,” he said. “For about five years, if you preached a very simple gospel presentation you would have 300 people at church the next Sunday. People were very hungry, and churches were growing fast.”

Some of the gospel presentations were inaccurate or messy. There probably wasn’t enough emphasis on good theology. And not every conversion was genuine—some joke that if you count all the decisions for Christ made in Albania, the country has been saved three times over.

Some people might have signed a card just to be polite. Or maybe they wanted a chance to talk to a foreigner. Maybe they didn’t know what they were doing. But then again, one of the young men who said he wasn’t interested would later help lead TGC Albanian.

TGC Albanian

“I saw the Jesus film,” said Hamza, who was 15 years old when Albania opened up. “I was like, Wow, interesting movie, but nothing changed.”

Hamza was barely Muslim—“it just meant I had a Muslim name”—and his grades and behavior were so terrible he got kicked out of high school. “I thought, ‘Okay, now that I’m out of school, I’ll go to Greece to work and make money,’” he said. But instead of instant riches, he was deported back to Albania for lack of proper papers.

With few options, Hamza joined the army’s driving school, where he met a guy who talked about Jesus. At the same time, he began walking his little sister to the children’s programming at a local church. The pastor’s wife noticed him and asked him to stay for the young adult programs. He did, “and God really captured my heart.”

Hamza began helping with church facilities, then gradually moved into ministry. He went to Bible school in Durrës; along the way, he found the Desiring God (DG) website. “It gave me a different, more realistic view of God. . . . I would read something and be like, ‘Yeah—that’s how God really is. He’s not a little God who tries really hard, but he is way beyond our imagination.’”

He started working with DG, first translating 52 of John Piper’s sermons into Albanian, then Piper’s book on the five points of Calvinism. When Piper spoke at a missions conference in Italy in 2016, almost 60 Albanians were in attendance. The next year, at a joint TGC/DG conference in North Macedonia, the largest contingent in attendance came from Albania.

One of them was Kona, who had asked so many questions about the roles of elders and deacons and pastors and teachers that someone told him he was “talking like a Presbyterian.” While looking up what that meant, he found R. C. Sproul and eventually earned a degree at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Another was Andi Dina, who came to Christ in college. He was working for the Evangelical Alliance when he came across the work of R. C. Sproul. “My heart melted immediately with these teachings,” said Dina, who planted a church in partnership with Acts 29 in 2019.

Search for God

In the space of three decades, nearly all of Albania’s officially atheist population claimed or reclaimed a religion—by 2018, self-identified atheists dropped to less than 1 percent of the population. People primarily sorted themselves into their family’s pre-communist religions—about 75 percent are now Muslim, 11 percent are Catholic, and 7 percent are Orthodox. While the number of evangelicals expanded from 16 to around 17,000, they’re still less than 1 percent of the population.

Evangelism is increasingly difficult as the population settles into nominalism, chases wealth, and is isolated by both COVID and smartphones. Evangelism strategies, like those in the West, are shifting to be relationship-focused.

“Much of the fruit we want to see, we probably won’t in our lifetime,” Dina said, “We long to see a whole generation of godly pastors and leaders who deny themselves and take their cross every day—a generation of Christian leaders with a burning heart for the glory of Christ, who like John the Baptist can say, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

“With all the problems and faults, we’re encouraged, because in almost every town, there is at least one church,” Hamza said. “The challenge is to help believers ground themselves in a true understanding of the Bible and God, not just, ‘Oh, God, can you please do this for me?’”

To that end, Dina, Hamza, and Kona are working together with other Council members on TGC Albanian, which already has a Council, a website, and a conference. They’ve translated dozens of books and hundreds of articles.

“I have quite a bit of emotion about this, and a great deal of joy,” said Colin Smith, who spoke to about 180 people gathered at TGC’s first Albanian conference in 2019. “In the 1970s, I was growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a little Baptist church. We had a weekly prayer meeting, and I remember as a teen, praying for Albania. It caught my imagination—how could there be a country in Europe with no known believers?”

While he was there, “it was very clear, not only the number of Christians had grown significantly, but that the Lord is raising up a new generation of Christian leaders—and in particular, of church planters. And that’s a remarkable thing.”

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer and faith-and-work editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is also the coauthor of Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age. Before that, she wrote for Christianity Today, homeschooled her children, freelanced for a local daily paper, and taught at Trinity Christian College. She earned a BA in English and communication from Dordt University and an MSJ from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She lives with her husband and two sons in the suburbs of Chicago, where they are active members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church.

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