Europe’s Backdoor for Drugs, Sex Trafficking, Jihadism—and the Gospel

The Balkans: backdoor to Europe for illicit drugs, illegal weapons, Islamic extremism, human trafficking—and the gospel. 

Albania—modern day Illyricum (Rom. 15:19)—has a rough history. It was dominated by the Islamic Ottoman Empire for 500 years until the late 1800s. For 50 years after the Second World War it suffered under a communism akin to North Korea’s. In 1967, it became the world’s first self-declared atheist state. Who envisioned that it would emerge as a church planting engine for the Balkans? 

Since the end of communism in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Albania has gone from having zero to more than 200 evangelical churches.

While foreign missionaries established the beachhead in the 1990s, and many are still active in church planting, a movement is emerging that crosses denominational lines. Approximately 25 churches were planted in 2015 by Albanian church planters. Many of these identify with “Church Planting 2020,” a network launched by Tirana (Albania’s capital city) pastors Kejdis Bakalli and Altin Kita with a view to see Albania’s churches double by the year 2020. 

What God Has Done

At a meeting with a small group of “2020” pastors recently, I reflected on the privilege of being among them. Back in the 1980s, while I was involved in Bible smuggling to persecuted Eastern European believers, Albania was a “no go” zone. A few Christians would make tourist trips to pray; others would send literature by dumping waterproof packages into rivers or the Adriatic Sea, or even by tying tracts to balloons. (In fact, I know a man who became a believer after finding a tract in a bottle on the beach. A few years later, he “accidentally” met some missionaries at a park in his city and became instrumental in their establishment there.) But there was no church. At the meeting I confessed that, even while I prayed for Albania to open to the gospel, I didn’t really expect to see it in my lifetime. As pastor Kita later put it, “Just thinking how God has worked in my country leads me to tears.”

Besides domestic church planting, a mission movement is emerging. According to Kejdis Bakalli, “Albanians are open to new ideas and new initiatives. That’s why I believe casting a vision to send out foreign missionaries is so important. Call us and send us; we are ready.” Indeed, Albanians are notorious adapters. They bent but didn’t break under 500 years of Ottoman rule. Their tiny population has maintained its unique language and culture despite opposition from pretty much everyone around them. And when they emigrate, they often become entrepreneurs and stories of success. They also straddle Eastern and Western cultures—largely maintaining Eastern traditions but generally looking West.

Can you think of better raw material for missionaries?

Harsh Realities

Despite this good news about the good news, there are some harsh realities in the Balkans. Before I moved here, when a sports teammate of mine who managed a strip club heard I was moving to Albania, he asked me jokingly if I’d help him “get some girls for his staff.” Of course, I didn’t. But his question reflects the devastating facts about human trafficking in this region. Also, police recently raided a southern village doubling as a de facto armed drug-manufacturing camp, worth about 4.5 billion euros in cannabis production. The narcotics officers who double-check our car each time we leave our city remind me the problem hasn’t gone away. 

The religious landscape is another harsh reality. Even with perhaps 20,000 believers, Albania is less than 1 percent evangelized. Neighboring Kosovo is about 98 percent Muslim, with maybe 500 evangelical believers. Macedonia, a majority Eastern Orthodox country with a minority population of 650,000 Albanians, is worse: There are perhaps five or ten evangelicals among the entire Albanian population. Islam is tied closely to national identity for Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia. 

Albania has been generally pro-Western since the fall of communism, and therefore receptive to missionaries from the West. In Kosovo, NATO intervention against Serbia in 1999 produced remarkable goodwill toward all things Western. But now the tide is changing. Many Albanians are disillusioned with slow economic progress and government corruption. Money and missionaries are arriving from the Islamic world, who see the country as a gateway to Europe for Islam. An active foreign-funded mosque-building effort is underway, and Islamic dress—rarely seen 10 or 15 years ago—no longer turns heads or indicates a foreign visitor. Many locals can name a former classmate, friend, or relative who has been recruited to jihadism and is fighting in the Middle East.

How You Can Pray

Please consider how you and your church can be involved with the spread of the gospel in Albania and the Balkans. Here are some ways you can pray:

  • Pray that believers would regain and maintain boldness in evangelism, especially as cults and Islam raise their profile.
  • Pray that they would be models of godliness and integrity.
  • Pray for wisdom for Christian parents and the first generation of children as they come of age, that they would know how to navigate life in an environment of growing materialism, economic pressure, and fast-changing morality.
  • Pray for more workers—pastors, church planters, disciplers—for the harvest.
  • Pray for creative financial models to fund church planting that enable, not hamper, church multiplication. 

* Alexander, the man in the suit pictured above, kept his faith during the 46 years of communism in Albania. He’s still a faithful member of my church. Praise God.

Editors’ note: The Gospel Coalition provides free books to help equip church leaders around the world. We have Croatian, Albanian, and Russian language titles currently available. Join us in the cause of Theological Famine Relief.