The Albanian army is reducing its numbers but the rules on distributing Scriptures among soldiers remain strict. So the pocket-sized, camouflage New Testament that the Interconfessional Bible Society of Albania is about to publish will have a special role to play.
Because there is an official separation between the Church and the state, the Albanian government does not sanction military chaplains. But the religious freedom that exists at the moment means that soldiers are allowed to attend any church they choose – as long as they don’t go in uniform.
After the collapse of Communism in 1989, Muslims and Catholics in the north and Orthodox Christians in the southern part of Albania sought to regain their former influence and to limit other forms of religious activity. So even if there were army chaplains, says young soldier Roland Shuli, “We evangelicals would not be granted chaplains, because we are not officially recognised!”
Roland, 30, and married with two children, is a captain in the Albanian army. Like his friend Llazar Çuko, a retired professional soldier [see separate article], he is active with the Association of Military Christian Fellowships (AMCF), a network of Christian officers and soldiers.
Camouflage New Testament
He became a Christian around 1991. At that time he used to go to a church started by American missionaries. In the months preceding Albania’s invitation to join NATO in April this year, Roland was a member of a team dealing with the evaluation of its application.
Ironically, Albania, along with other prospective candidates for NATO membership, is trimming the armed forces it inherited from the communist period to offer the Western allies what has been called “leaner and more usable military muscle.” So from January 2010, compulsory military service, an institution in Albania since 1945, will be abolished altogether.
But meanwhile, every man in Albania between the ages of 19 and 26 still has to serve in the armed forces for a year. And with the Interconfessional Bible Society aiming to publish its Interconfessional New Testament in a pocket-sized camouflage edition by the end of 2008, Roland, a professional soldier, is hoping to find a way to finance a limited distribution of it.
Giving a Bible personally
In Russia, the national Bible Society runs a continuous program called ‘Bibles for the Military’. But rules in Albania mean that no mass distributions are allowed in army barracks.
“But I can use these camouflaged New Testaments when I’m just talking privately to a soldier,” Roland explains. He estimates that over a two-year period he and the others in his Military Christian Fellowship could probably distribute a thousand copies.
“Before 1997,” he recalls, “there were Christian campaigns and concerts at which large-scale Scripture distributions took place.”
“But,” adds Altin Hysi, the General Secretary of the Bible Society, “the New Testaments that Roland and Llazi distribute mean more, because there the gift arises out of a personal relationship.”