By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TIRANA, ALBANIA (BosNewsLife)– Over 2,300 people have made public “decisions to follow Jesus Christ” or asked for spiritual help during Albania’s largest evangelistic festival in recent history, organizers said Thursday, September 27.
The new converts were among more than 20,000 people attending the September 22-23 ‘TiranaFest’ of American evangelist Luis Palau in the capital Tirana, his Luis Palau Association (LPA) told BosNewsLife in a statement.
Additionally, over “80 decisions” for Jesus Christ were made after Palau spoke at “an outreach dinner” for “a packed crowd of business, professional, and government leaders,” the LPA added.
Earlier, Palau proudly announced that 62 of some 100 professional women, including executives, made a “public commitment to Jesus Christ” during a luncheon he hosted last week.
“Twenty-seven want to be called for talking,” the Argentina-born preacher added, speaking in his trade-mark rhythm English.
Luis Palau and his team said they are working with local churches “to help facilitate a clear follow up” process with new believers. Palau said he also met “religious leaders”, including the the archbishop of Albania’s Roman Catholic Church, which he added “only reopened 20 years ago.”
“Now they open and develop and they have encouraged people to come to the festival. In fact an African American choir from Selam Baptist Church in Chicago was going to play at the Cathedral singing Gospel songs,” Palau explained.
Plans to meet the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church were canceled at the last moment after he fell and was injured during communion, Palau said.
Despite some setbacks, LPA stressed it was pleased with the results as “Tirana is a city of less than 1 million people with only about 3,500 known believers” in Jesus Christ.
“What a great work our God did” in a country that “is still awakening from decades of state-imposed atheism,” the LPA said.
It cited local churches as saying that the event at Tirana’s Mother Teresa Square was “the first of its kind” since the Albanian government closed all religious institutions and declared Albania a “purely atheistic state” in 1967.
(Watch here Luis Palau’s report on TiranaFest. Story continues after this).
Many Christians were jailed and several of them killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ under the regime of late Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha, according to local believers and several advocacy groups.
Albania began allowing private religious practice again in 1990, but Palau noted there are still relative few Christians in this Balkan nation of over three million people.
Palau estimates suggest there may be up to 15,000 devoted believers, including the new converts, in the country, up from “only five believers 20 years ago.” Other church observers dispute that figure.
“There were many thousands of Orthodox and Catholic secret Christians who continued to believe, pray and worship on penalty of death during the time of
persecution,” recalled Anastasia in a comment on the BosNewsLife website. “The Orthodox Christians constitute 20 percent or more of 3.5 million people and Catholics 10 percent,” she wrote.
“Now that the Protestant faith is a recognized religion in Albania you will also continue to sow the seeds of peace and respect for others in Albania and recognize that there is a first century Church here that has suffered greatly, but is being restored by the Grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Palau has argued however that true Christians are those who personally decide to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Yet Richard Weber, a long-time priest and monk, said “Christians and so called Christians like to put everyone in boxes…If you are not in a certain box you are not a Christian.”
“The other day I ran into some Christians [who] could not believe I was a real Christian as I was a monk. I was deeply hurt,” he wrote on BosNewsLife.com.
TiranaFest was also backed by Albania’s government and Tirana’s mayor, Lulzim Basha, who appeared at the opening of the festival Saturday, September 22. Speaking at the main stage, Basha reportedly offered his “welcome and support for TiranaFest.”
Besides sermons from Palau and partner evangelists, TiranaFest featured live music with artists ranging from Albanian Juliana Pasha, who represented her country at Europe’s famed Eurovision Song Contest 2010, to the Salem International Choir with 40 vocalists from Chicago.
There were also stunt shows, including from skate and motocross-style athletes, and children programs.
Some criticized the festival as a “trick” to convert Albanians to evangelical Christianity. “My friends who went to the [TiranaFest] found it very annoying that an evangelist would take most of the time. People were tricked to come to the Fest because they were misinformed by ads,” commented Jerry on the BosNewsLife website.
“This was not Christianity…”This was [a] badly organized activity” with, “singers dressed in miniskirts,” added Tonij.
“It’s kind of silly seeing evangelical Albanians, considering we already have a flourishing Orthodox and Catholic Church,” said Nikolle in a separate comment. “Albanians were one of the very first Europeans to accept Christ, we don’t need to be “evangelized” by foreigners,” Nikolle wrote.
Yet, Mel praised the initiative saying it is “really good news” that thousands of Albanians decided to follow Christ. Many Albanians, Mel said, “need to find God and
accept Jesus as their savior. More evangelical Albanians is only good news for this country. God bless them all.”
The nation’s top three television networks were among those covering the festival and churches organized “Season of Service” events ahead of the two-day gathering, which organizers claimed contributed to the number of visitors.
“Since 1985, I have loved Albania, I have read about Albania, and I always dreamed that someone would invite me,” Palau said of what he called an “unprecedented” opportunity. “It is very exciting to be here in this country that is 70 percent Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox, 10 percent Roman Catholic and than the rest…”
His visit to Albania, a still impoverished nation seeking membership of the European Union, marked another milestone for the 77-year-old preacher, who last year became the first American evangelist to publicly visit Vietnam since the Vietnam War.
The LPA claims Palau has so far preached “faith in Jesus Christ” to over 1 billion people through radio, television, the Internet, books and articles, including 28 million people face-to-face in 72 nations. However, “Your prayers truly made a difference in Tirana this weekend,” Palau told his supporters.