Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Albanian alphabet

Part II

(Scroll down for Part I.)

Buzuku notwithstanding, during those 500 years of Turkish rule, most Albanians adopted Islam. Conversions at the point of the sword were the exception rather than the rule, but there was always pressure. Christians in Turkish territory paid much higher taxes and were treated as second class citizens. The empire was organized along religious lines, so that when an Albanian, a Greek, or a Serb converted to Islam, he was said to have become a Turk. By the same token, an Albanian who belonged to the Orthodox faith was automatically considered Greek.  

In the 19th Century as the Turkish Empire began to unravel, Albanians (along with the other Balkan peoples) began feeling intense ethnic pride and a hunger for freedom. In the case of Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks, for example, religion was a unifying factor in their struggle to break free. However, Albanians were divided among three faiths: Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. All three of these had been used at various times in history as a force for domination by foreign powers: Catholicism by Rome, Orthodoxy by Greece, and Islam by Turkey. None of the three allowed worship in the mother tongue at that time. For Catholics of course Vatican II was still 100 years away. The Greek Orthodox Church of that time alternated between denying that the Albanian language even existed and calling it "an accursed language." And Muslims must worship in Arabic to this day. In light of all this it's no surprise that many Albanian patriots came to see religion as a divisive and damaging force. A poet by the name of Vaso Pasha summed up the feelings of many of his fellow Albanians with the famous line, "The religion of Albanians is Albaianism." (Communist dictator Enver Hoxha would quote this to justify his decision in 1967 to make Albania the world's first constitutionally atheistic state.)

This was the historical context in which a young Albanian man in the city of Manastir (present day Bitola in Macedonia) was introduced to a living, transforming connection to God by Protestant missionaries in his city. His name was Gjerasim Qiriazi, and he discovered in his new faith a relationship with the God who spoke his language. He went on to study at a Bible school in Bulgaria after which he was sent to Skopje (where I now live and work) to pastor a Slavic congregation. From here he went to work for the British and Foreign Bible Society, which three hundred years after the Meshari, had begun working to translate the Scriptures into Albanian. Gjerasim traveled throughout the Albanian lands to distribute the Word of God in his mother tongue.

In the course of his travels Gjerasim rejoiced with his fellow Albanians as, for the first time in their lives, they held in their hands the printed word in their own language. But he also lamented the fact that so few of them knew how to read it. These experiences awakened in him a new passion, which led to a new pursuit. In 1892 in the city of Korça, he and his sisters opened the first ever school for girls in the Albanian language. (The first Albanian school for boys had opened just five years earlier in the same city.) Gjerasim also planted a church in Korça and established the Albanian Evangelical Brotherhood.  

Gjerasim’s life motto was, “Friends for God; light for the people; blessings for the motherland.” His faithfulness to this course proved costly. In 1884 he was captured by brigands and held for ransom for six months. Their brutality left him with health consequences for the rest of his life. Just as Pharisees and Sadducees found common cause to oppose Jesus in his day, Greeks and Turks managed to unite in opposition to this seditious book salesman despite their hatred of one another. He had to fight fierce opposition at every step. In 1893 he survived an assassination attempt, apparently sponsored by elements in the Greek Orthodox Church. As it turned out, his enemies could have saved themselves the trouble; he died less than a year later at only 35 years of age.

To be continued...

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