Tucked into southeast Europe, just across the Adriatic from Italy lies Albania, strung out along a mountainous coastline, unknown and unremarkable to most except for its post WWII declaration that it would be Atheistic: no religion allowed. Brutal. Harsh. Demanding. It was more than Communist in economic and social policy. Dictator Enver Hoxha prided himself on following Stalin. But he went further, declaring that anything religious would be outlawed. Churches, Mosques, Synagogues were demolished or turned into everything from barns to factories, making neighboring Communist dictator Tito of Yugoslavia seem like a saint. Few countries compared except North Korea.
Beyond persecution, belief in any religion was made illegal. That illegality ruled society. Creating within the culture a pragmatic, utilitarian, browbeaten people whose values rested uneasily on the quick sand of fear in being loyal to the state. The vacuum of its ideology held this historic community suspended between the absolute control of its president and a heartfelt desire to believe.
I sat with widow Elona Prroj in downtown Tirana’s Stephen café run by Christian entrepreneurs and listened to a story of which, in my initial meeting I had no warning. Blood chilling and bizarre, yet magisterial in its biblical vision.
Albania, occupied by the Turks (Ottoman Empire) from 1385 to 1912, its Muslim dominance chased Christians away from urban areas into the mountains. This was especially true in the north around the city of Shkodra, just south of Montenegro.
Families fleeing the Turks over time coalesced into tribes around family names and identity. An ancient set of oral laws dating more recently from the 15th Century but probably having evolved from the Bronze Age, were in the 1800’s codified in written form called The Kanun. These laws covered articles on all aspects of life and applied both to Christians and Muslims. During the communist reign the Kanun was abolished but in the 1990s, ironically with the fall of Hoxha, people distrusting the effectiveness of their police, especially in the north of Albania, reestablished the Kanun as a ruling part of life.
Embedded in these ancient tribal laws are rules regarding blood revenge: how a family deals with the murder of one of their members. As ancient as Cain and Abel, if a member of your family was killed, then it was your duty to insure that a person of the offending family is killed. And that will continue for four generations until the offence is repaid. Blood revenge is in its essence, payment for crimes once done.
It was into one of those families that Elona wed. Coming from the south where such practice was unknown, her life would soon be caught up, indeed trapped by the ancient custom of feuding. The family of her husband (a pastor of an Evangelical church) was caught in a blood feud in Shkodra. One of his uncles had killed a young man of another family. Within his family there were 24 families all linked into the family accused of being the offender.
What however twisted this into a community wide jungle of conspiracy, economic depravation and fear was that the husband of each family feared for their lives and thus would not ever leave their home, not for work, not for anything, unless cloaked in camouflage and hidden in the trunk of a car or under blankets. The implications are obvious: the man – and in this part of the world the male rules – is not able to work, confined to the house, protected by his cache of armaments, knowing any exposure might lead to death. Financially strapped, the wife would have to earn the family income, while the male, limited to the family house would stew, frustrated by his inability to work, and often aided by alcohol, abuse of every kind would be rife. One issue devolved into another.
Elona ‘s husband Dritan never left their house for four years so she took up the role as pastor of their congregation. Finally they fled to England. But after two years Dritan said no longer would he run and hide from the sin of his community. He would return, pastor the congregation, and trust God for his safety.
For 18 months he went about his work caring for his congregation and living openly invited the offended family (as the custom allowed) to meet and find a means of reconciliation other than by blood letting. They refused to meet. He knew his life was in constant danger, even though the Kanun forbids that a priest be killed for blood revenge.
Finally one day while leaving the church, seven bullets struck him down and he died. The police arrived along with media. Elona was asked by a television reporter for her response: “I forgive,” she said. Then when asked if they were going to lay charges she said, “Forgiveness doesn’t allow for that.”
While the impact on family and church was enormous, what surprised me was the freedom triggered by his death. The husbands and fathers of 24 families under the blood curse were now freed. The payment had been made in blood and now the offended family had exacted its price and no longer were the men of Dritan’s extended family forced to live in fear and self-confinement.
Yes, as the blood of sheep lifted the curse of sin for the wandering Israelites, pointing forward to the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, freeing us out into eternity, Dritan knew his death would lift the curse from his extended family. He was willing to pay the price.
Elona continues to pastor the congregation while completing a PhD in psychology.
The literal giving of life for the freedom of others is not what most of us think of when we consider Christ’s call to discipleship.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance