The ideological void left when Albania's Communist and strongly atheist state collapsed in 1991 has attracted scores of missionaries. And their programs, geared toward Albania's youths, have been strikingly successful.
Before 1967, when Communist dictator Enver Hoxja banned all religions in Albania, the country was 70 percent Muslim, 20 percent Catholic, and 10 percent Greek Orthodox. But since 1991, 58 religious groups and sects have registered at the Department of Religions in the Ministry of Culture.
Many Albanian youths are attracted to the missionaries at first by their curiosity of meeting foreigners, and their desire to speak or learn a foreign language. "In 1992, my brother brought some German believers in the house. They continued to come every week. The change came gradually. I became friends with them just to learn their language, later I accepted Christianity," says Albana Toska, a student.
But meeting with foreigners was not the only way in which Albanian youths made connections with the religious groups. Most of them were introduced by friends and relatives. Only a few of them had their parents' permission to visit the missionaries.
"I feel uncomfortable with my daughter talking about God. When I was her age, I was sent by the government to destroy the church in my hometown, and I still feel guilty about it," says Monika Alibali, whose teenage daughter is a member of the Baptist Church. While some parents object to their children meeting with missionaries, other parents see the missionaries as a beneficent influence. "I find [being with the missionaries] is a good place for my children to be, especially in this difficult period when there is the risk of children using drugs and alcohol," says Liri Koci, a mother of two.
The particulars of the belief system appear to be of less importance. "You should see what really happens with those kids. They are ready to become members of those groups even for a dress or a pair of pants," says an employee in the Department of Religions who asked not to be identified.
But even with this flood of other religious groups, the three main religions do not appear worried about becoming outnumbered. "We always have had three main religions in Albania. The new sects do not have any social or ideological base for building a generation of new believers," says Hafiz Sabri Koci, a leading Muslim in Tirana.