Vendetta, Blood Feud, and Forgiveness:

Contextualizing Ministry in Northern Albania









Jerry Collins

Contextualization for Meaningful Ministry

July 10, 2009













Vendetta, Blood Feud, and Forgiveness:

Contextualizing Ministry in Northern Albania







                                The Blood Feud Code


                                The Blood Feud Factors


                The Kanun of Lek Dukagjini


                                The Centrality of the Code


                                The Concept of Honor in the Code


                                The Categories of the Code


                Blood and Honor Throughout History


                                Blood and Honor in the Past


                                Blood and Honor in the Present


                                Blood and Honor Outside Albania


                                Blood and Honor in Perspective


                Contextualizing Ministry in a Blood Feud Culture


                                The Challenge of Contextualized Ministry in a Blood Feud Culture


                                Contextualizing the Gospel in a Blood Feud Culture


                                Contextualizing Discipleship in a Blood Feud Culture







                “Just as he had done so many times before, Gjorg brought the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the man’s head. For a moment the head seemed to resist him, trying to elude his sights, and at the last instant he even thought he saw an ironic smile on the man’s face…The man came closer…As he had done each time he had imagined he saw the man, in keeping with the custom, he warned the man before he fired. Neither then nor later did he know if he had called aloud or if the words had been stifled in his throat. In fact the other man turned his head sharply. Gjorg saw him move his arm as if to unsling the rifle from his shoulder, and he fired. Then he raised his head, and as if bewildered watched the dead man—take a step forward, drop his rifle on the right side, and immediately fall to the left. Gjorg came out of concealment and walked towards the body. The road was deserted. The only sound was the sound of his footsteps. The dead man had fallen in a heap.”[1] This description of a vendetta killing introduces us to the rites of blood feud in northern Albania penned in the haunting novel by the celebrated Albanian author, Ismail Kadare.

                A neighbor kills Gjorg’s brother and for several months he has been waiting to fulfill the code of the blood feud, the kanun, which requires him to kill his brother’s murderer. In turn, his own life will become forfeit, as the new victim’s family who are obligated by the same code to seek retribution for the life of their son will hunt him. Kadare’s story eventually ends with Gjorg’s death leaving us with a trail of blood, revenge, vendetta, and a cycle of violence that has become known as blood feud.

                Unfortunately, the vendetta does not only exist within the realm of fiction. Even today, it is the stuff of real life for Albanians living in the northern mountains and beyond. According to “Every year, at least a thousand men and boys die in blood-feud killings in Albania alone; the lives of tens of thousands more are spent in isolation and perpetual fear. Women and girls are never targeted.” [2]

The Blood Feud Code

                The Albanian blood feud is centuries old and follows an elaborate system recorded in The Code of Leke Dukagjini.[3] The laws and customs in the kanun—or Code—of Leke Dukagjini were transmitted orally for generations and provided the code of behavior and social life in Albania. These civil laws included regulations about blood feud and vendetta amongst the clans of Albanians.

                This code can be traced back 600 years when the feudal leader, Lek Dugajini, established them. His code states, “An offense to honor is never forgiven. [It] is not paid for with property, but by the spilling of blood or by a magnanimous pardon…the person dishonored has every right to avenge his honor” (Gjecov, The Code of Leke Dukagjini, 130). It was this codified version of the blood feud, which provided the arrangement for how a vendetta killing was conducted so as to reinstate honor and remove shame in the clans of northern Albania.

                The kanun was viewed as a formidable threat to the control of the Communist

regime under Enver Hoxha, the Communist ruler of Albania from 1945 until his death in 1985. The Communist government ruled over Albania from 1945 through 1991. This authoritarian communist rule determined to stamp out the practice of kanun during Hoxha’s administration. However, “Kanun Law…suppressed by Albania’s harsh Communist regime…revived when it collapsed in 1991 because in the mountains the laws of the weak new government are rarely enforced”.[4]

The Blood Feud Factors

                The backdrop of blood feud raises questions about how we preach the gospel and make disciples in regions of Albania or wherever Albanians live, where vendetta—the law of kanun—is still in force. Before 1991 there were few if any believers in Albania. After the fall of Communism, missionaries rushed into Albania sharing the gospel and planting churches. Much of this effort was focused on the south of Albania. The north had some incursions of the gospel and some hardy souls were able to stick to the challenge of preaching the gospel and collecting small groups of disciples. But it was more difficult to reach people in northern Albania. These ‘mountain people’, many migrating to northern cities from the mountains after Communism, also brought with them their ‘mountain ways.’ This included the code of kanun with its blood feud regulations. Other factors made sharing the gospel a daunting challenge.

                One of these factors is that most Albanians are Muslim by heritage. Islam does

not play a large role in the day-to-day life of Albanians. The Ottoman Turks imposed it

upon them. Gerolymatos explains, “When the Ottoman armies first subdued the region, they discovered a people divided between the Orthodox Church in the south and the Catholic Church in the north. Characteristically, the Ottomans exploited these differences, and the Albanians called on their instincts of survival to adjust to the new economic and political realities. The Albanian feudal landlords were the first to renounce their respective faiths and embrace Islam, an act that allowed them to keep their estates and privileges. In 1468, the Ottomans implemented large-scale Islamization…economic factors and the tax advantages of Muslim affiliation ultimately produced a net population benefit for the Ottomans, since Albanians continued to convert to Islam, even some of those who had first piously adopted the Orthodox faith.”[5]

                Cultural factors like Islamic entrenchment among Albanians make the responsibility of sharing the gospel and building disciples a significant challenge. Coupled with the code of Leke, the practice of blood feud, and Albania’s past Communism, contextualizing ministry is essential if Albanian’s worldviews are going to be changed by the gospel.  

                Having explained some of the historical background of the Albanian blood feud, the remainder of this paper will focus on and illustrate the extent vendetta and blood feud play in northern Albania today. This paper will also document the spread of this practice amongst Albanians migrating to other countries. This has implications for ministry with

groups of Albanians in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, England, Europe,

and the United States, each of which has significant populations of Albanians.

                This paper will then attempt to interact with issues of revenge and forgiveness, and honor and shame, interpreting and applying these biblical concepts in relation to blood feud. How can the gospel be contextualized in these settings? What is the message that must be communicated to Albanian believers who are in blood feud whether their family is seeking revenge or if they are in danger of being retaliated against? What should the Albanian church be teaching and how can the church contextualize their discipleship of believers so that within the Albanian cultural context a believer’s worldview is changed, allowing them to truly follow Christ while remaining within their own vendetta seeking culture?  In what ways should Albanian believers be applying the Word of God as they manage the repercussions from blood feud when they believe the gospel and then determine to live their lives following Christ?


The Centrality of the Code               

                This code of Lek is the template that regulates life for northern Albanians. It has a long history dating back to the 15th century and has evolved into a sort of religion. At first, this law helped Albanians resist assimilation by the Ottoman Turks but the code also served to limit the cycles of bloodletting among the mountain tribes. Sherer and Senechal highlight the centrality of the kanun for northern Albanians acknowledging that the Code of Lek is, “…one of the world’s great documents [and] is endlessly fascinating. Its influence on Albanian society can be—very loosely—compared to that of the Bible in Western culture, where the deeply religious, the casual believers and agnostics and atheists alike used biblical metaphors and parables almost unconsciously.”[6] Robert Carver who travelled extensively in Albania in the spring and summer of 1996 wrote a travel book of his journey. In it he comments about the significance of the kanun for the Albanians. He writes, “When I finally managed to get hold of the kanun and study it thoroughly, the scales suddenly fell from my eyes. Much that I had found incomprehensible in Albania suddenly became entirely clear. I had read that the Kanun of Lek represented an archaic feudal code of the mountain tribes relating to past ages. What I discovered was a profound psychological portrait of contemporary Albania. It was not that Albaninans ‘followed’ the kanun, as if a rule book or book of laws; rather, the kanun represented what Albanians, in their deepest essence, believed was right and wrong.’[7]  He then makes the strong assertion that, “In my view no official should be allowed to negotiate with Albanians, or even visit Albania, who has not mastered this quintessential code, which lays bare the very soul of an ancient, proud and much misunderstood people” (Carver, The Accursed Mountains, 312).

The Concept of Honor in the Code

                The core of the kanun, its essence and central feature, is the concern of bese or honor. Maintaining honor in one’s life and the life of the clan is supreme. Losing one’s honor through a host of differing situations in the mountains is worse than anything else. Personal honor is a badge of dignity, respect, and a means of ordering mountain society. This is the central focus of all of the code. Noel Malcolm makes the case for the concept of the honor code when he notes, “One leading scholar has summed up the basic principles of the Kanun as follows. The foundation of it all is the principle of personal honour. Next comes the equality of persons. From these flows a third principle, the freedom of each to act in accordance with his own honour, within the limits of the law, without being subject to another’s command. And the fourth principle is the word of honour, the Bese (def.: besa), which creates a situation of inviolable trust…the Kanun decrees: ‘An offence to honour is not paid for with property, but by the spilling of blood or a magnanimous pardon.’”[8] Malcolm also reiterates the connection between blood feud and the pursuit of honor in the code stating, “What lies at the heart of the blood-feud is a concept alien to the modern mind, and more easily learned about from the plays of Aeschylus than from the works of modern sociologists: the aim is not punishment of a murderer, but the satisfaction of the blood of the person murdered—or, initially, satisfaction of one’s own honour when it has been polluted. If retribution were the real aim, then only those personally responsible for the original crime or insult would be potential targets; but instead, honour is cleansed by killing any male member of the family of the original offender, and the spilt blood of that victim then cries out to its own family for purification (Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, 19-20).

                This concept of honor explains why so many caught up in blood feud are motivated to pursue vendetta. The heavy burden of shame on those who have suffered a murder in their family is too much to bear if one chooses to not get revenge. They can become despised people amongst the family groups in their village or town. The shame is intensified as they are seen as cowards who do not care about their own blood. This burden can become so intense that many in the northern clans of Albania cave into the mounting pressure to pursue vendetta. In an e-mail from an Albanian pastor, who understands the code of honor that exists in the north, he reveals that, “…being a shame culture, dying, jeopardizing the life [of] your family and killing someone that has nothing to do with a crime (except that [he] is of the same family) is [a] more acceptable thing than to live with shame.” He adds that, “Once this starts it goes on from generation to generation.”[9]

                Christopher Boehm in his research of feuding in Montenegro (Montenegro is a neighboring country of Albania and vendetta killing was common there before the turn of the twentieth century) amplifies the role of honor in blood feuding. He makes the point that Montenegrins, “…were extremely sensitive in the matter of honor. This means that their lives and behavior were shaped very effectively by tribal opinion simply because they were so vulnerable to that opinion. This concern of Montenegrins with their personal and clan reputations was the basis of feuding, in that the taking of blood vengeance was not merely morally justifiable but was morally necessary if one’s reputation was to remain unblemished.”[10] The loss of honor is so acute that it demands to be restored. Among Montenegrins, Boehm expresses that this loss, “…is a difficult thing to repair in any society; to take someone to court for defamation of character…may not entirely rehabilitate the honor of the person who has to rely on a court in fighting out his case. In traditional Montenegro, the mode of restoring honor that had been lost because of an insult was far more direct, and also more effective. You simply killed the man who impugned your honor. This is one important reason that Montenegrins, as a matter of personal self-interest, were careful about how far they went verbally in offering offense” (Boehm, Blood Revenge, 92). This illustrates how the failure to pursue vendetta can bring severe damage to one’s honor and this can also bring shame upon one’s immediate clan. The disapproval of one’s tribal community can become intolerable.

The Categories of the Code

                All of the essential rules of human life were developed and passed on in traditional codes of law. For generations, these were transmitted from memory through oral tradition. Malcolm explains that, “The Kanun remained unwritten until the nineteenth century, when summaries of it by non-Albanian writers began to appear in print. The fullest and most authoritative text was complied by a Catholic Albanian priest, Father Shtjefen Gjecov, and issued first as a sequence of articles in a Catholic journal; it was eventually published as a book, four years after his murder by Serb extremists in 1929 (Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, 17). These codes related to marriage and family, property and inheritance, pasture rights, honor, damages and criminal and judicial rule. Each of these categories served to regulate and define the social and civil life in the mountains.

                One of the driving forces for these codes in the northern mountains was the absence of centralized governing structure that possessed the authority and power to settle disputes and bring justice to those disrupting the social order. This then generated moral pressure and necessity, which was instilled in the cultural traditions of the mountain clans. These traditions, based in honor, ultimately led to blood feud and vendetta killings. Sherer and Senechal succinctly connect the dots between blood feud and the need to secure one’s honor when they write, “The kanun is notorious because it codifies the epic blood feuds of these mountains. Too many accounts of the kanun dwell on this aspect alone, which is a serious distortion. But neither can it be ignored if one wants to understand Albania: the vendetta (revenge) is yet another theme of Albanian history that reverberates today. The kanun sets forth the offenses to honor under which blood feuds are incurred (thus becoming tragic burdens for the families involved) and the rules that govern their conduct. Unless a truce is declared, the feud must continue from generation to generation: once incurred, the original offense itself is irrelevant because now the honor of the family is at stake (Sherer and Senechal, Long Life to Your Children!: A Portrait of High Albania, 29).

According to the kanun a man is dishonored by any number of offenses including:

                a) If someone calls him a liar in front of a group of men;              

                b) If someone spits at him threatens him, pushes him or strikes him;

                c) If someone reneges on his promise of mediation or on his pledged word;

                d) If his wife is insulted or if she runs off with someone;

                e) If someone takes the weapons he carries on his shoulder or in his belt;  

                f) If someone violates his hospitality, insulting his friend or his worker;

                g) If someone breaks into his house,                his sheepfold, his silo, or his milk-shed in       his courtyard;

                h) If someone does not repay a debt or obligation;

                I) If someone removes the cover of a cooking pot in his hearth;

                j) If someone dips a morsel of food before the guest, the guest is dishonored;

                k) If someone disgraces the table in the presence of a guest, after the master of the              house has had dinner utensils removed (Shtjefen Gjecov, The Code of Leke                 Dukagjini, 130, 132).


Carver adds, “While not all of these would necessarily result directly in a blood feud, they are grounds for one if mediation is not sought or agreed. Once a feud starts, only blood can wipe out dishonour. Hence the endemic, the perpetual, nature of Albania’s violence and disorder. Feuds are inherited over the generations” (Robert

Carver, The Accursed Mountains, 308).

                The connection between the need to maintain ones honor and participation in

blood feud is clearly evident from the code of the mountains. As we have seen, a broad range of offenses can dishonor a person. An example of one of these offenses is the violation of hospitality. The kanun lays out tough conditions governing hospitality and honor:

                602. “The house of the Albanian belongs to God and the guest.”

                608. The guest must be honored with “Bread and salt and the heart.”

                609. At any time of the day or night, one must be ready to receive a guest with      bread and salt and an open heart, with a fire, a log of wood, and a bed.

                610. A weary guest must be surrounded by honor. The feet of the guest are           washed.

                616. “The guest is given the place of honor.”

                618. The guest is given the place of honor as a mark of respect, as well as to place                him in better view and to separate him from the members of the household.

                619. When a guest enters your house, he is free of any obligations to you while he              is there.

                625. You must expend your labor and your food on a guest, in order not to be       ruined or disgraced.

                626. “If you accompany your guest on his way, you are responsible for any           dishonor that someone may cause him.”

                634. “Hospitality honors you, but also creates problems for you.” (Hospitality      discloses the devil, some have said).

                642. A person falls under your protection even by simply calling out your name:   “I am so-and-so’s guest.” Although you may no longer be at home, if someone           bothers that person, he is considered to be your guest and your honor is sullied.

                643. If someone mocks your guest or abuses him, you must defend your guest’s honor, even if your own life is in danger.

                (Shtjefen Gjecov, The Code of Lek, Dukagjini, 132, 134).


                These are extreme responsibilities, which come with dangerous consequences if violated. Maintaining one’s honor is a major preoccupation of the code, which explains the strict rules, associated with the social order in the northern mountains of Albania. Blood feud lurks in the background should there be an impugning of one’s honor.


Blood and Honor in the Past

                For generations the honor code has impacted Albanian culture. The purpose of the code has been to curtail blatant killing and provide a framework for social justice in the mountains where no governing authority was able or willing to administer a rule of law. The kanun was developed to instill a social conscience that would keep mountain society from chaos. The kanun did not justify murder nor did it give permission toward vigilantism. Boehm illustrates this perspective from the traditional Montenegrin culture, which is similar to the northern Albanian pattern of decision-making by means of the kanun. He remarks that, “One might cling to the impression that Montenegrin society was anarchic or that the tribesmen were impulsively and recklessly or even immorally prone to violence…being devoted to the principle that no man may rule or coerce any other man, the Montenegrins quite carefully controlled the same sword by which they lived. In the absence of a centralized government possessing the coercive force needed to settle disputes arbitrarily and to execute, punish, or incarcerate those who seriously disrupted the social order, Montenegrin individuals were guided by their own communal sense of morality. This generated a moral pressure that was sufficient to maintain the well-known yet unwritten rules of conduct that regulated feuding” (Boehm, Blood Revenge, 161).

                In their book, Sherer and Senechal agree with this synopsis and claim that, “Lek

Dukegjini probably made things better, not worse, by bringing law and order into the lives of his countrymen through the detailed regulations of the kanun” (Sherer and Senechal, Long Life to Your Children!: A Portrait of High Albania, 30).  Boehm also goes on to explain that blood feud and vendetta killing was rooted in moral necessity and the rule of law that guarded one’s honor, which could only be maintained by the taking of another’s life. He elucidates the concept this way: “Believing deeply in the moral necessity of blood revenge, the Montenegrins were well educated in a cultural tradition that made it natural to see a feud not only as a logical and necessary series of dire events but also as a drama in which honor was displayed at its best because the stakes were so extremely high. This is not to say that Montenegrins enjoyed the taking of blood or that they welcomed a feud. Indeed, it was potentially very difficult to kill a total stranger who happened to belong to an enemy clan. But they considered this ultimate kind of vengeance to be a moral necessity” (Boehm, Blood Revenge, 161). The result was controlled killing within the social fabric of the blood feud regulations in order to uphold the necessity of honor and remove the blight of shame.

                Scattered throughout the reports and books written on the subject of blood feud are numerous examples of the practical effect this need for upholding honor has in the life of the clans of northern Albania. This practical effect is the loss of hundreds and thousands of lives. Reports of killing and being killed have been common for generations and have taken an incredible toll on families.  For instance, Malcolm documents these killings quoting sources that indicate, “At the end of the Ottoman period it was estimated that 19 per cent of all adult male deaths in the Malesi [Mountains] were blood-feud murders, and that in an area of Western Kosovo [a neighboring Serbian province with an Albanian majority population] with 50,000 inhabitants, 600 died in these feuds every year. One mid-nineteenth century vendetta in the Malesi began when two men quarreled over four cartridges which one had promised and not delivered: within two years it led to 1,218 houses being burnt down and 132 men killed. This is an extreme example, of course…And yet the tradition of the blood-feud had never died out in Kosovo…” (Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, 20).

                Verbal disputes were enough to inaugurate a blood feud. The first homicide would open the door to further clashes and deaths. This would bring the victim’s family under obligation to blood and vendetta. The killing would then escalate going back and forth for years and for generations. Rules for killing and not killing would be imposed by the kanun and all the while more deaths would follow in its wake. At the turn of the twentieth century Boehm describes the “…conditions of existence for people who were obliged to feud [as] truly terrifying. If a feud was with neighboring Albanian tribesmen, their favorite mode of assassination was to creep up on the house and climb onto the roof. They would remove a shingle and then would kill their victim where he slept, at short range…Once a man had succeeded in taking vengeance, it was vital that he himself survive; otherwise, obviously, the blood score was not advanced in favor of his own clan” (Boehm, Blood Revenge, 110).

                The possibility of having entire clans wiped out through revenge killing made the need for male offspring mandatory in the mountains. The birth of a male was a time of

intense celebration while the birth of a female cast an ominous cloud over the progeny of the family. This is chronicled by Boehm who observes in the villages that, “Every man geared his life to ensuring that he would have male issue; this was apparent not only in the ways that children were talked about but by the behavior of the household when a child was born. If it was a son, there was joyous firing of rifles and exploding of other munitions. If it was a daughter, there was only a gloomy silence.” A heavy curse by the vladika (Eastern Orthodox bishops who tried to resolve these disputes for political reasons—to strengthen unity amongst the mountain clans to fight against Ottoman rule) would be pronounced against un-cooperating tribesmen; “May the black flag hang from the ridge pole of your house!” and “Since this signified a future absence of male progeny and hence that the house’s line would die out, the man would listen in fear. But even so, the person being cursed frequently would not obey but rather would continue the blood feud” (Boehm, Blood Revenge, 68-69). In this way the blood feud was advanced with no end in sight without some sort of mediation that required a blood meal eaten together and blood money to be paid. However, this sort of mediation, even though authorized by the kanun, was rarely followed in favor of vendetta killings, which served to satisfy the honor and assert the clan’s interests.

Blood and Honor in the Present

                Blood feud and vendetta killing is not just a relic of the past. The code of kanun is still operative today with one huge variable. It is reinterpreted to support revenge killing without the underpinnings of the social order used to regulate useless killing and revenge with rage. Reporting on a blood feud between rival Albanian families in an article by

Jolyon Naegele, is an interview with Emin Spahia, the chairman of the All-National Albanian Reconciliation Commission, about the current practice of vendetta killing in Albania. The rival families have been in blood feud for ten years forcing one family to live in the middle of a field complete with a surrounding three-meter-high wall. After two attempts by the rival family to kill their five-year-old son, they sent all three of their children to live elsewhere. The family seeking revenge has said they will pursue this family as long as they are alive and will try to kill them. Emin Spahia, “…spends much of his time driving his Mercedes-Benz over the pot-holed roads of northern Albania, trying—but not always succeeding—to help families find peaceful resolutions to blood disputes. He has been working with [the family under blood feud] for five years. Spahia says the strongest obstacle to reconciliation…are the women in the rival family who refuse to give up the feud…He says, ‘Going on like this, victimizing a person for so long, is illogical….the kanun, in fact, is the least of the evils we face at present. Currently, not even the kanun has any application. [The rival family] is violating God’s law, the state’s law, and the kanun—all three”.[11]

                In a BBC News article Mike Donlin reports on a family who have been under blood feud for nearly four years. He writes, “There are 72 people in what the Laciy family call their tribe. They live in the beautiful mountains of northern Albania, but for nearly four years they have not dared stray beyond the gates of their yard because of ‘gjakmarrya’-a blood feud-has been declared against them. One of their sons killed a man and so, under an ancient code revived in these remote valleys, the victim’s family must take revenge against any of the killer’s male relatives. It means the women must farm the land and that even a 10-month-old boy, born ‘locked in’, will eventually be a target unless the feud is resolved…‘Our enemies have punished us enough. None of us men can work’ he says. ‘We are already ruined as a tribe’”[12]

                In an e-mail received from a friend serving the church in Albania came this news item with the heading, “MURDER IN BAJRAM CURRI (a northern Albanian city notorious for blood feuds)…on Tuesday April 2nd, 2002 the sister of the four Haklaj brothers who have been murdered in blood feuds, killed two and wounded two others. One of the wounded was a passer-by. [She] is over 30 years old with a university education, and [has been working] as a teacher in her home village [and[ has stated that she will not marry nor will she die until she has taken revenge on the deaths of her brothers. This killing occurred at 12.00 midday in the middle of Bajram Curri”[13] In another confidential e-mail is a copy of an urgent prayer request for a Christian family who is suddenly threatened by blood feud. The wife’s father and grandfather had just been murdered. The family is from the northern city of “Tropoja” well known for the ongoing blood feuds between families over the decades. For this particular family, one by one, the men have been exterminated with only one brother who remains alive.[14]

                In a 2005 news article from BBC News, Mortimer and Toader report the story of a current blood feud that has roots from over sixty years ago. The setting is in the northern city of Shkodra where “…two families live confined to their own homes because of blood feuds. Gjin, whose family is the potential target in one feud, explained that he personally had not killed anyone—but the feud related to events involving his father around 60 years ago.” Gjin says that five years ago, someone from the family who was killed came to him surprising him with the news that his father was involved in the killing of their uncle and they were coming to seek blood. Hearing of this, Gjin, then decided to take his family away to avoid any confrontation. The death of the uncle by his father took place after Albania’s liberation and just before Communism around 1945. “Gjin also said he was more afraid now because while kanun law states that boys under 16 cannot be included in the killing, the tradition is being broken by the vengeful. It has led him to withdraw his youngest son from school.” Killing his son is greater revenge because then Gjin and his family will suffer for a longer period of time.[15]

                In yet another northern Albanian village, Mali I Jushit, is the story of a 19-year-old teenager named Mojo Muriqi, who “…has been confined to his sparse living quarters for nearly four years. Mojo is despondent about his future. At 19, he should be socializing…and planning for student life and a career. Instead he spends his time playing cards or indoor football, sometimes doing the ‘women’s work’ of cleaning.” He along “…with sixty other male relatives is compelled to remain in a compound of family homes, [as] a victim of the ancient tradition of blood feuds.” His uncle ignited this feud killing a younger man over a dispute while tending sheep. The kanun stipulates that the family homes cannot be breached and is a safe-haven. “As a fit young man, Mojo is a prime target for revenge and he is candid about his fear. ‘I’m very afraid…before I led a normal life. I went to the city, I played football…I was finishing school and deciding what profession I wanted to follow. Now it’s just like being in jail’…According to the National Reconciliation Committee, more than 1,200 children are without schooling because of feuds. [Their] figures…show that since the end of the communist dictatorship in 1990, more than 20,000 families have been affected by blood feuds and 6,000 lives have been lost.”[16]

Blood and Honor Outside Albania

                With Albanians migrating to other countries, the blood feud and vendetta killings have spread. One reason this has happened is because individuals and families under a blood feud have left Albania to begin new lives in other countries where it is safer for them to live. Another reason is because relatives of families pursuing revenge have been on the lookout for any relatives living overseas. In the UK, Tony Thompson reported on the growing dilemma of Albanian gangs trafficking in the vice trade. He reports that, “Until recently, the business had been in the hands of the Russian mafia, but in the past two years, increasing numbers of Albanians have moved in.” The authorities have evidence that some murders of Albanians in the UK are also connected to blood feuds and not just the gang related violence. The article then mentions, “The murder of asylum seeker Denis Ceka, whose body was found wrapped in bed sheets on a building site near Heathrow airport, and the killing of Perparim Jalaj, who was stabbed to death in Luton, have both been linked to blood feuds emanating from Albania. Ceka was believed to have been involved in a shooting a year before his death. Albanian tradition…holds that ‘blood should always be avenged by blood’ if one man kills another, and a feudal code lays

down precise rules for how the revenge should be taken.”[17]

                The problem of blood feud is linked to a killing in a church in Detroit, Michigan where the second largest population of Albanians live in the US. Gjon Pepaj was charged with the murder of Gjek Sufaj, which some believed is related to blood feuding. The article indicates that, “Prosecutors say Pepaj sat through Mass…with his two children…before shooting Sufja in the head and neck…after firing the bullets into Sufaj’s body, the gunman yelled, ‘I done what I suppose to do’, police said…[This] attack brought an unwanted spotlight to what community members said was a practice thought abandoned. ‘We were supposed to leave these feuds behind. We left them in Albania a long time ago,’ said Luigi Gjokaj…who witnessed the shooting.” [18]

Blood and Honor in Perspective

                A common setting for the code of Lek has consistently been the absence of

governing structures, which has contributed to the necessity of the kanun in the mountain villages and towns of northern Albania to maintain social order. Even under Ottoman rule for hundreds of years, the Albanian mountains were largely left untouched, allowing mountain society to abide by the kanun. Two factors have contributed to the rise of blood feuds in modern Albania. The first factor is the collapse of the communist regime in 1991, which ruled in Albania for nearly fifty years. Enver Hoxha’s government attempted to suppress the code of Lek and the people, fearful of governmental reprisals if they committed vendetta killings, were forced to comply. No one knows for sure, but vendetta killing was apparently suppressed to some degree. After Communism collapsed in 1991, the chaos of a country trying to regain its governmental feet, in addition to the corruption in that government, contributed to the resurgence of the practice of kanun.

                The second factor is the collapse of the central government in 1997 when many Albanians lost their savings in a nationwide get-rich quick pyramid scheme. The resulting upheaval from rioting and banditry strengthened the allegiance to kanun, which still holds sway in many Albanian minds today. These factors have reinforced belief in and the practice of the mountain code.

                In light of these historical and contemporary factors relating to blood feud, what kind of ministry posture must be taken to effect the worldview of Albanians who are either in blood feud or may be one day? Contextualizing ministry with Albanians must take into account the historical customs of the kanun. Blood feud and vendetta killing is motivated by the overriding concern of one’s honor. How might ministry to Albanians become impacted by this concept as it relates to the gospel and discipleship? What follows is an application of a contextualized ministry in a blood feud culture that can change an Albanians worldview as well as practical suggestions about how to follow Jesus Christ by applying that biblical worldview in a dominant vendetta seeking culture.


The Challenge of Contextualized Ministry in a Blood Feud Culture

                Every culture has its own set of challenges when it comes to presenting the gospel and making disciples. Deeply ingrained worldviews are sharpened through experiences and life lessons consistent with a cultures ideology. Meaningful belief systems are established and make up the social systems that serve the interests of those living within that culture. Ministry within a blood feud and vendetta killing culture does present an intimidating scenario even when one has a certain grasp of the cultural milieu.               

                In a confidential e-mail from an Albanian pastor serving Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, he acknowledges the daunting challenge and the careful parlance one must use in these settings. Candidly, he admits, “It is very hard for people here (Christians included) to stand out from the tradition and behaviour customs, and blood feud is one of them. It was understood among Albanians…that some kind of revenge needs to happen for a killing, wounding or just offence.” He says he does teach what the Bible conveys about revenge and what Jesus also teaches us about forgiving people when He died on the cross. He includes in his teaching that revenge alone belongs to the Lord and not us. Yet he confesses that, “…I still have problems with people in our church and with Christians in other churches of Kosovo about the issue of forgiving our enemies (Serbs, in this case).” Then he illustrates the problematic nature of this teaching in an Albanian blood feud culture. He exclaims, “How do you teach a widow to love and forgive a Serb who killed her husband and/or her son(s)? How do you help a teenager understand the need to forgive a Serb who killed his/her father, brothers and uncles and he was made to stand there and watch? …So, dealing with blood feud and any kind of revenge matter is a difficult thing with us. I do not avoid it, but I always try to be careful how I approach it and how I teach and preach about it. Of course, I do not dilute the truth, but this is a sensitive issue.”[19] Indeed it is, and because of its sensitivity a contextualized approach to ministry in this culture is mandatory.

Contextualizing the Gospel in a Blood Feud Culture

                Interestingly, nine Albanian pastors were asked to explain how they contextualized the gospel in view of the vendetta culture amongst Albanians in Albania and Kosovo. Only one of these pastors mentioned that he has ever had to deal with blood feud in such a way that it required him to have to be specific about what he said or did. Yet most of them were aware of families (not in their churches or ministries) that were dealing with blood feud. One of these pastors and his family is under blood feud even now and has been so for nearly four years. Admittedly, this can leave one a little befuddled about the true need for a contextualized gospel in this culture or possibly even more, that it is truly a difficult challenge to do so with an interwoven vendetta killing and honor driven society.

                Maybe the best starting point for a contextualized gospel is with the concept of

honor. Maintaining one’s personal honor and thus the collective clan honor is a basis for the connection between the honor of the mountain code and the sense of God’s honor. This concept was expressed in an e-mail newsletter from a missionary in Albania who has been serving in that culture for years. The newsletter makes mention of the link between the honor upheld in the kanun and God’s honor. He writes, “According to the Albanian mountain code, the Kanun, a man’s nder [honor] is holy and God-given. It is everything. Even our phrase for ‘you’re welcome’ is actually ‘may your honor increase’. If nder is violated, it is never forgiven and ‘can only be paid for by the spilling of blood or magnanimous pardon.’” For anyone evangelizing in a blood revenge culture it may seem legitimate to complain about this dark and morbid practice...“However, the ancient vendetta customs present vivid ways to illustrate the Gospel! It goes something like this: ‘We have violated God’s law, and His nder is infinitely more inviolable than our nder. So just as the mountain Kanun demands blood to cleanse our honor, so God’s Canon demands blood to appease His wrath.’ And that paves the way to preach about THE ‘Magnanimous Pardon’ realized only through the ever-powerful death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[20]

                When we talk of God’s honor in this culture, it has a ring to it because of the honor-based mountain code. Before God we might be ashamed since we have violated His honor as our creator. This leaves us with the need to be reconciled to Him. We are now ‘in blood’ with God. God’s honor is at stake because of our rebellion against Him. So how does God go about retrieving His honor? By killing us? By getting His revenge against us? We will still have to talk about sin. That is the harsh reality of our dilemma. We are guilty of dishonoring God. Our sin has caused this problem and there is no way around that. So the honor of God is a very real problem that must be solved just like the personal honor of the Albanian in blood feud.

                God retrieves His honor not by killing us but by slaying His own Son. Jesus as God’s Son never violated the honor of God but He was willing to be sacrificed as a perfect honor-bearer in our place so we could be forgiven of our dishonoring God, His Father. So the blood shed by His Son, Jesus Christ, satisfies God’s honor. Jesus death then results in our forgiveness of our own violation of his Father’s honor. The payment being made in blood, God now asks us to trust that payment by faith and He will forgive us.

Contextualizing Discipleship in a Blood Feud Culture  

                Discipleship is the act of one person intentionally impacting the life of another person in the direction of Christ likeness. In a vendetta killing culture it is essential that believers develop, adopt, and apply a biblical worldview that actually changes their lives within their own culture and contributes to their discipleship. This will need to be tended to on at least two different fronts among Albanians who come to Christ. The first front will be with a believer whose family is pursuing revenge in a blood feud. On a practical level this believer will need to face the harsh reality of following Christ’s teaching about forgiveness and not pursuing revenge since it belongs only to God. But he will also have to face the shame of not doing so from his own family and clan, as well as manage the mounting pressure to honor his family by vendetta killing. In a phone interview with a missionary in Albania, this very scenario was addressed in his ministry with a young Albanian believer. The case involved the killing of the believer’s brother in a blood feud. This young man has two small children of his own and approaches his pastor to seek advice. He knows what the Bible says and he knows he cannot pursue revenge. But he feels the pressure from his family because it would be the manly thing to do. He knows its wrong and decides to organize a forgiveness party. He tells his family he will not do a revenge killing but he knows that someone else most likely will since this is a family thing. So he concludes, if they do a vendetta killing his forgiveness has no effect because the murder has taken place. Then he now becomes a target since he is the oldest son, plus he has his own family to be concerned about. So what should he do? The pastor advised him to do nothing. Do not promise forgiveness to the other family and do not kill anyone. His unbelieving family members are not going to act as briskly or at all or at least for a while if they respect the older sons position. In addition, this believer will also have a good conscience toward God.[21] In time it is possible that his family may pursue forgiveness through his stance and leadership but there is no guarantee. The need for encouragement and continued discipleship and prayer will be essential as this believer determines to follow Jesus Christ in this volatile situation. These are the harsh realities of a blood feud culture.

                The second front for discipleship is with a believer whose family is under a blood feud. To ask this person to simply trust God and live a normal life is placing his life in needless jeopardy. The wise thing to do is to keep himself and his family safe while attempting reconciliation. Ultimately, he may have to stay in this situation indefinitely. It may require several attempts over a period of years before either reconciliation is accomplished or another living arrangement for him and his family in another country is necessary. A pastor in northern Albania is facing this very decision and after a number of years attempting reconciliation without any progress, he is deciding to leave his ministry and take his family to a new location overseas until the blood feud is resolved. It is possible that the blood feud may never be resolved but he says he will use this time to study and prepare himself further for ministry in the future. Again this is the harsh reality for believers caught in the apex of blood feud.


                In many ways, contextualizing ministry is always in process with a vendetta killing culture. Each situation brings with it a unique set of personalities and opportunities for Albanians to apply a biblical worldview that truly takes them on a path of following Christ. A confidential email from a friend in Albania succinctly coveys the focus of a contextualized ministry that God uses to impact Albanians living in an honor-based and vendetta seeking society. “It is not our aim to change culture, but when culture is sinful, it must change. We continue to be delighted at the power of God to change lives one by one, melting away centuries of sinful culture and replacing it with the life of the Spirit and the Word…pray that more believers would choose suffering for righteousness over the relative ease of going with the flow.”[22]



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[1] Ismail Kadare, Broken April (London, Great Britain: Vintage, 2003), 8-9.

[2] Gendercide, "Section Three: Covering issues related to gender, religion, and culture,", June 14, 2001, (accessed June 19, 2009).

[3] Shtjefen Gjecov, The Code of Leke Dukagjini (New York, New York: Gjonlekaj Publishing Company, 1989).

[4] Mike Donkin, "World: Europe "Eyewitness: Albania's blood feuds",,  May 5, 2002, (accessed June 15, 2009).

[5] Andre' Gerolymatos, The Balkan Wars (New York, New York: Basic Books, 2002), 113-114.

[6] Stan Sherer and Marjorie Senechal, Long Life to Your Children!: A Portrait of High Albania (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997) 35.

[7] Robert Carver, The Accursed Mountains (Hammersmith, London: Flamingo, 1999) 312.

[8] Noel Malcolm, Kosov: A Short History (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1999) 18.

[9] This e-mail was confidential, June 17, 2009, e-mail message to author.

[10] Christopher Boehm, Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1984) 85.

[11] Jolyon Naegele, "Albania: Blood Feuds--'Blood for Blood' (Part 1),", October 12, 2001, (accessed June 20, 2009).

[12] Mike Donlin, "World: Europe,", May 5, 2002, (accessed June 23, 2009).

[13] This e-mail was confidential, June 28, 2009, e-mail message to author.

[14] This e-mail was confidential, June 28, 2009, e-mail message to author.

[15] Majlinda Mortimer and Anca Toader, "Blood feuds blight Albanian lives,", September 23, 2005, (accessed June 19, 2009).

[16] Nicola Smith, "Blood feuds trap 1,200 Albanian youths at home,", January 20, 2008, 3216606.ece (accessed June 19, 2009).

[17] Tony Thompson, "Blood feuds behind vice killings,", May 25, 2003, (accessed June 15, 2009).

[18] Tarek El-Tablawy, "Charges filed in killing during church service,", April 2, 2003, (accessed July 2, 2009).

[19] This e-mail was confidential, June 18, 2009, e-mail message to author.

[20] This e-mail was confidential, June 28, 2009, e-mail to author.

[21] Confidential interview by The author,  A believer seeking advice, (June 29, 2009).

[22] This e-mail was confidential, June 19, 2009, e-mail to author.