Readers may be aware that Kosova, in South-Eastern Europe, became an independent nation in February 2008. What they may not know, is that the first evangelical church there in modern times was Methodist.
At about half the size of Wales, Kosova is a small country with some 2,000,000 inhabitants, of whom about 95% are Albanian. Of these, 96% are Moslems, and most of the rest are Roman Catholic. No-one knows how many Protestant believers there are, but the number is variously estimated at anything from 800 to 2000. I suspect a lower figure is more realistic.
In 1898 a Bible woman came to Prishtina, the capital, to work among the local population. At that time, Prishtina was an outstation of the Thessalonica mission field. She began a women’s work, and it was soon possible to found the first house church. The first services were held in a domestic school, and the first mission school was founded there in 1900.
At the 1922 Methodist conference in Novi Vrbas, Superintendent S. W. Irwin reported:
…Also in Prishtina, in the same District, a church is being built. It was originally built with the means gathered by Miss Stone, veteran of the mission. And so a Methodist church could stand as the first Evangelical church in the Field of Blackbirds (Kosovopolje).
At the annual Conference in Strumica, Macedonia, Bishop John Nuelson transferred a Swiss missionary, Rosa Isler, to Macedonia, and she became a helper in the congregation of Pastor Pane Temkov in Skopje. Her ministry was mainly with women and children, and it turned out to be difficult and depressing work. In the Second World War she also served among soldiers from all over Yugoslavia stationed in Skopje, who filled the church, including visiting wounded soldiers in hospital. She soon became proficient in the Serbian language, and the mission outstations of Prishtina and Mitrovica, in Kosova, were especially laid upon her heart, not least because the pastor in Skopje was mainly unable to find the time to visit these two remote congregations. At that time, Kosova formed part of Serbia, despite its predominantly Albanian population. Readers will recall the 1998-1999 war for independence.
Visiting these congregations involved much effort, but Rosa undertook the work gladly. She reported concerning Prishtina:
We have an imposing two-storey church building which has two rooms on the lower floor, provided with furniture and well suited for a preacher’s flat. Upstairs is the worship hall with harmonium, pulpit and chairs.
Recently this outstation has been almost exclusively left to lay preachers, as it is so difficult and costly to reach. The 80-year-old lay preacher ‘Uncle’ Lazar Mijatovic calls people to worship with a cow bell. One wonders who can take over this work after his death? I already view these two outstations as my particular foster-children.
Rosa travelled to Prishtina and Mitrovica as often as time and finance allowed – often at her own expense – and made house visits, held services, Sunday school and women’s meetings. She set up a special Christmas programme with the twenty children of the Sunday School, which a good number of people attended.
Meanwhile, in Mitrovica there was only a small house church, with two families in church membership. The lay preacher was called Grbanovic.
As the War progressed it became increasingly difficult to reach these outposts, and from March 1941 it was no longer possible. Prishtina was occupied by the Italians and Mitrovica by the Germans, and Rosa was deeply saddened by the war’s destruction of so many hopes. At the end of March 1942 the bishop transferred her to Strumica in Macedonia.
The Miss Stone who gathered so much finance of the work in Kosova was in fact Ellen Stone. She wrote in McClure’s Magazine (May 1902):
During the frequent missionary tours which I have made in Macedonia during the last twenty years and more, I have often been conscious of danger from the brigands who have long infested that country.
In September 1901 she and another missionary (Katerina Cilka, wife of the Albania pastor from Korçë, Albania) were captured by brigands and held hostage for about six months in the Macedonian mountains.
I have not yet been able to discover anything else concerning the congregations in Mitrovica and Prishtina until we reach the early 1980s. If anyone knows anything about their story, I should be very pleased to learn about it.
The Serbs are, by religion, mainly Serbian Orthodox, and their church is deeply and closely entwined with Serbian nationalism. The Methodists, as a ‘foreign sect’, suffered a lot of pressure from the Orthodox, and by the early 1980s they had been scattered. One old Serbian lady remained, Vera Gapic, continuing to worship privately in her own home. Her father had been leader of the congregation. Eventually she was joined by two Albanian brothers, Anton and Nik Krasniqi, who had been converted from among the Roman Catholic minority. The three began to meet together for fellowship and worship. Pentecostals from Osijek in Croatia came to do church-planting, and a Serbian pastor, Iakov, was installed. British missionaries came, to learn Albanian against the day when Albania should open again to the Gospel (it did: 1991). A Chinese student learning Albanian was converted. Gradually the work became increasingly Albanian in language and character, and the Serbian pastor and some co-workers left for other fields of service.
Anton Krasniqi was appointed pastor. He had studied at the Pentecostal college in Osijek.
In 1994 a group within the church wanted a non-Pentecostal congregation, and separated to form “Messiah Evangelical Fellowship”, which today is a thriving, evangelising congregation consisting entirely of converted Moslems. The pastor himself, Femi Cakolli, is the son of a Moslem priest who wanted him to follow him into the ministry!
So Protestant work in Kosova, both Pentecostal and non-Charismatic, is being established and is growing, even though it remains comparatively small. Serious efforts towards unity are being made among the different ‘brands’ of Protestant, coupled with a desire to eliminate doctrinal strife imported by Western missionaries or visitors. To worship with them is a privilege, and is exciting.
David M. Young