Gerasim Kyrias – Zealous Evangelist and National Hero
Gerasim Kyrias – Zealous Evangelist and National Hero
On 16 February 2000, eight months after the end of the Kosovo War, Rexhep Meidani, then President of Albania, gave a glowing accolade to the Evangelicals who had promptly banded together to help the huge number of Kosovar refugees. “In this they have shown their determination to continue in the tradition of men like Gerasim Kyrias, who lived to serve his nation in the hope of making this world a better place,” he said.
It was an amazing statement, coming from the atheist leader of a country that, in 1967, declared itself “the first atheistic country.” What was surprising was not his mention of Kyrias, who had long been considered a national hero. It was Meidani’s association of Kyrias with the Evangelicals, at a time when Protestants, especially those with foreign connections, were still viewed with suspicion.
Hearing the Gospel
Gerasim Kyrias (also known as Gjerasim Qiriazi) was botn near Monastir (today Bitola), in northern Macedonia, on 18 October 1858. At that time, the region was under the Ottoman Empire. Albanian by language and culture, his family belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. After his basic studies at the local Greek school, Kyrias worked as an apprentice shoemaker to help support his family.
He was fifteen when three American missionary couples arrived in Monastir. Another couple joined them the following year. They rented a house behind the Kyrias’s.
Kyrias was curious about the message these Americans were preaching. Unlike others, who soon found the gospel too demanding, Kyrias continued to listen, bought a Greek New Testament, and read it regularly. In 1877, he asked to be admitted to the small missionary church as a communicant member, in spite of his family’s opposition. In the course of time, however, his family approved of his decision, and his brother George and his sisters Sevasti and Parashqevi made the same choice.
Since Gerasim and two other young men expressed the desire to preach the gospel, the missionaries arranged for them to attend the American Theological Seminary in Samokov, in today’s Bulgaria, and prepared them for the entrance exam. Gerasim enrolled in 1878 and graduated in 1883.
Missionary to Albania
At the same time, a Scottish missionary to Istanbul, Alexander Thomson, had been nourishing hope of starting a mission in Albania. After learning about Kyrias from his son, Robert, who had been visiting Monastir, Thomson wrote a letter to Kyrias inviting him to work with his organization, the British and Foreign Bible Society, toward the evangelization of Albania.
What he didn’t know is that Kyrias had already expressed a desire to preach the gospel in the land of his ancestors, and John Baird, one of the missionaries who had settled in Monastir, suggested that he wrote Thomson. Kyrias’s and Thomson’s letters crossed paths.
In spite of persistent opposition by both religious and secular authorities, Kyrias worked tirelessly and enthusiastically to bring the gospel to Albania by preaching, translating, composing hymns, and overseeing a group of colporteurs who delivered the translated literature to the people.
“The words of life which enlighten hearts, bring joy and lead to the right path have unfortunately been hidden from our eyes up until this day,” he wrote. “Few are those who understand the sweetness and power of the words of the gospel.”
Albanians were moved to hear the gospel and listen to hymns in their own language, a language which, according to both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches of that day, was not fit to convey God’s words.
Seizure and Attempted Murder
Kyrias experienced a major setback in 1884, when a group of bandits, mistaking him for a merchant, kidnapped him and held him for ransom. They kept him for about six months, under constant mistreatment, even after discovering who he was, hoping that his foreign friends would pay. They finally released him without receiving all the money they had wanted. Later, during one of her travels, his sister Sevasti learned that the messenger who was supposed to deliver the ransom money had kept a good portion of it to build the same hotel where she was spending the night.
The experience of being kidnapped and kept captive convinced Kyrias of the importance of education, to provide alternatives for young men who see banditry as the only way to make ends meet. Some time later, he expressed this in a book about his experience, Captured by Brigands.
With this vision in mind, in 1887 Kyrias founded a school for boys. He also promoted the education of his sisters at a time when most Albanian families were opposed to the idea of educating girls. In 1891, he assisted his sister Sevasti in opening the first Albanian school for girls, where his younger sister Parashqevi started to work when she was only eleven.
Kyrias’s thoughts on the nature of his captors seemed to be confirmed when, in 1893, they visited him in his home, after receiving a pardon, and promised to protect him and his school.
But the kidnapping was not the last of his troubles. Within three months, in 1893, he escaped two attempted murders. Each time, he was convinced the hit men had been hired by Greek Orthodox authorities. He insisted on a trial, which proved uneventful, with one of the would-be assassins exonerated and the other condemned to a mere three months in prison. No investigation was conducted.
When Kyrias began to receive a regular salary from the Bible Society, he started to think about finding a wife. After a while, he became engaged to a Miss Klonares from Samokov, whose father worked for the Society. But when he arrived for the wedding in 1888, he learned that his fiancée had changed her mind. She was just unwilling to move to Albania. This was a blow in several ways. Besides the heartbreak, he had great difficulties in repaying the Bible Society for the money they had lent him for the engagement and wedding.
He considered marriage again in 1889, after meeting Athena Michaelides, daughter of a former superintendent of the Bible Society, who was at that time pastor of the Protestant church in Thessaloniki. Athena was glad to join Gerasim in Albania. The two married in March 1890, then moved together to Kortcha, the main location of Gerasim’s missionary efforts. A year later, they had a child, Stefan.
Their marital joys didn’t last long. One month after Stefan’s birth, Athena became seriously ill. She moved back with her parents, who then lived in Istanbul, where medical facilities were better equipped. In spite of this, she died on December 24, 1891.
Gerasim was crushed, but continued his mission. “I am surprised at the consolation he receives from on High,” his friend John Baird wrote, “and at his laboring personally with individuals in season and out of season to bring them to Christ.” To do so, he had to leave Stefan with Athena’s parents.
But his own health, damaged by the hardships endured with the bandits, continued to deteriorate, so much that his brother and sisters took him back to Monastir to recuperate. The doctors diagnosed him with pulmonary pneumonia and advised that he spend some time in Athens or Corfu, Greece, where he could find a better climate. An outbreak of cholera and inclement weather caused him to delay the trip, and he died before he could take the trip, on 2 January 1894, at the age of 35. Before dying, he instructed his sister on how to deal with the hostile authorities.
Gerasim left behind a great number of writings, including a language grammar and a collection of poems and hymns. One of his crowning accomplishments was his contribution to the translation of the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew in Albanian Tosk, and the Gospel of Matthew in Aromanian. He also left behind a thriving church and a well-organized group of enthusiastic colporteurs.
Both of his sisters continued the work they had started in the girls’ school, and his brother George took the lead of the Protestant mission in Kortcha. In 2020, Parashqevi, who died in 1970, was honored by UNESCO for her educational work and compared to Maria Montessori.
When, in 1940, the Italian occupation of Albania resulted in the expulsion of all foreigners, the Protestant church continued to function on its own for about five years, until the communist regime, under Enver Hosha, placed strong restrictions on religious practices. Finally, in 1967, Hosha proclaimed Albania “the first atheist state,” ordering the destruction of all churches and mosques, or else their conversion into sports halls, cinemas or museums (for an estimate of about 2100 buildings).
Any religious practice became strictly outlawed, so much that a Catholic priest who dared saying a memorial mass after the murder of President J. F. Kennedy had to spend 28 years in prison. Many others were brutally tortured and killed. Protestants were particularly seen as spies because of their ties to foreign countries.
The fall of communism was followed by a decade of confusion and violence. But it was also followed by a lift of the ban on religion. Unexpectedly, the missionaries who took advantage of the newly open door found many Christians who had held on to their faith, including some who had first heard the gospel in Kortcha.
As in the case of other previous communist countries, Albanians have been impacted by years of anti-religious propaganda, and many are still suspicious of churches or religious groups.
In spite of his impressive achievements in such a short life, Gerasim Kyrias is still rather unknown. In Albania, he and his sisters are often mentioned for their service to the nation (the Kyrias sisters were even the subjects of a movie), without any reference to their faith. And yet, their writings show that the gospel was their main motivation and the advancement of the kingdom of God in Albania their main desire.
 John Quanrud, Gerasim Kyrias and the Albanian National Awakening 1858-1894, Albanian and Protestant Studies, 2012, 2.
 Ibid., 100
 Ibid., 152