The Hope for the World Foundation, the Eastern European 'outreach and humanitarian' wing of an independent Baptist church in Florida, was awarded the government contracts earlier this year, beating Muslim and Greek Orthodox groups. The deal is said to assign the foundation exclusive adoption rights.
The move, sanctioned by officials from the Ministries of Health and Education, leases the orphanages to the foundation for 49 years. Thus, the education, clothing, food and health of about 2,500 orphans are now the responsibility of the American organisation. Relatives who leave children in the orphanages must now sign affidavits transferring all rights to the foundation.
The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) special representative in Albania claims that the foundation 'trapped' the government into signing away the rights of its own citizens. Alireza Mahallati said a mission of international child welfare experts, working with Unicef, had expressed grave concern. He had forwarded its complaints to the authorities, but had received no reply.
Carlie Janney, a spokesman for Hope for the World and assistant pastor of the Orlando Baptist Church in Florida, emphasised that his church believed in the need to spread the gospel. It has missionary projects in the Caribbean, Kenya and the Philippines, and last month launched an orphanage programme in Romania.
Mr Janney, whose brother David runs the church, said the purpose of the Albanian project was two-fold: to share the gospel, and to provide as nearly as possible a family environment for the children. When asked what would happen to the religious education of Muslim orphans, Mr Janney agreed that the foundation would be unlikely to provide it. 'They would probably get it through the education system,' he said.
However, when I visited one of the Albanian orphanages, Hope for the World representative Mrs Debbie Hoffman said the children were not leaving the building to attend school, but were to be taught by herself, other foundation representatives and selected Albanians. The grounds of the orphanage, in the centre of the capital Tirana, are surrounded by high black railings with padlocked gates, necessary, it was explained, to stop local people stealing materials being brought in to rebuild part of the building.
Mrs Hoffman was marking exercise books. She said she was a trained nurse, and that her husband was in charge of maintenance. They and their daughter planned to live permanently in the orphanage, with its director, Dr Joe Evans, his wife, two children and a niece. 'The children here are not forced to attend our meetings,' she said, adding that there was no need for them to go outside, even for church services.
She invited me to attend the theatre to watch the children being entertained by visitors from the UK. The orphans sat in wooden seats in front of a stage. The young American 'Director of Activities' told them that they were going to sing songs and hear stories. The children dutifully sang the songs. They seemed to know them by heart, although they were in English: 'Oh, How I Love Jesus' and 'Jesus Loves Me'. A mime artist performed a gospel story, then told a parable about the sort of people allowed into Heaven.
Mrs Hoffman explained her group's success in winning the contracts. 'We got in first,' she said. No money had yet changed hands, but the foundation had been required to convince the Ministries of Health and Education that they could supply funding of between dollars 3,000 ( pounds 1,800) and dollars 5,000 a month. The money is raised by the church in Orlando, through private Christian schools in the United States, and through similar fundamentalist groups in Europe.
The way is now clear for the next orphanage in Tirana - for three-year-olds and under - to receive its American hosts. There were no plans, Mrs Hoffman said, to have the children adopted, as the government had put a temporary halt to foreign adoptions.
But according to the Unicef's Mr Mahallati, a clause in the contract specifically gives the foundation exclusive rights for any adoptions. 'It is a very fishy contract with some terrible clauses, and the authorities here have been trapped into signing it,' he said. 'The need in this country is so great, especially in the institutions where there was no food, no heating, no diapers for the babies, that if someone comes in with a smile on his face and a Bible under his arm, offering help, the authorities look upon him as a blessing. They cannot know his real motivation. The children have no outside contact with the world.'
He said Unicef would continue to lobby the relevant Albanian ministers until the contracts were broken. He admitted though, that it might take some time.
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