Yugoslav Lutherans Divided by Political Loyalties

The Lutheran churches of Croatia and Serbia are politically more different than similar: Croatian Lutherans regard themselves as natives, are highly patriotic, and display with pride the coat and arms of the new Croatian state.  Lutherans in the northern Serbian province of Voyvodina though are more within than a part of the Serbian state.  They are a part of the Slovak minority and hold their church life in the Slovak language.  According to Senior Vlado Deutsch, head of the Zagreb-based Croatian church, Lutheranism does appeal to some seekers who "identify neither with Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim traditions."  Yet there are virtually no Lutherans of Serbian origin.


Relations between Zagreb and the Slovak church headquartered in Novi Sad, Voyvodina are strained.  Croatian Lutherans applaud the Lutheran World Federation's December appeal for Western military intervention and the tightening of international sanctions against Serbia.  On both of these points, Voyvodina Lutherans take the opposing view.  German recommendations that the Serbian Orthodox church be banished from the World Council of Churches (WCC) enjoy strong Croatian support.  The Lutheran Bishop, Andrej Beredi of Novi Sad, counters, "That would be the wrong move."  Beredi attributes the pro-Croatian stance of the Zagreb church to the power of propaganda:  "One should only believe 50% of that which one hears in Croatian or in our own media."

Professor Gerald Shenk, an Austrian-based Mennonite peace researcher from Virginia, concludes Western media have a pro-Croatian slant and describes the WCC's pro-Serbian tendencies as a "corrective bias."   Croatians hold such views to be outrageous: They are convinced that war guilt is primarily Serbian.  The Protestants of Serbia though are equally certain that guilt is essentially equal.


Yugoslav contacts across the war frontier barely exist.  Voyvodina youth leaders resent a Lutheran youth conference in Vienna last Summer:  Slovak participants from the Serb Voyvodina believe Croatian delegates shunned them as "Serbs".


Fear for the morrow is rampant in the Voyvodina.  The Voyvodina, which has a minority population of 35%, possesses large Hungarian, Rumanian and Slovak minorities who do not exclude the possibility of eventual "ethnic cleansing."  These minorities feel especially threatened by the legal and illegal actions of extremist Serbian factions and gangs.  Ludmilla Beredi, the daughter of the Bishop, states: "We get along well with those Serbs who have been here for several centuries.  But many newcomers since World War II, including the recent refugees from Bosnia, have hate in their


Bishop Beredi steers a cautious course regarding military duty by church members.  "It would be highly problematic if all Lutherans or Slovaks would refuse to carry weapons," he warns.  "The government would immediately interpret that as an anti-Serbian step."  Life is consequently easier for multiethnic congregations with Serbian majorities such as the Pentecostals and the Adventists.  The Baptist church in Novi Sad, for example, sports seven different nationalities.  These small churches readily take advantage of opportunities to do alternative civilian service or non-combatant service within the army.


Thanks in part to the Serbian draft, many young Slovak men are emigrating to Slovakia.  The Lutheran Bishop of Slovakia, Pavel Uhorskai, conceded, "We do not lure them into coming, but neither do we prevent them from staying here.  We have over 100 vacant pastoral positions ourselves."


The Lutherans of Slovakia are the strongest supporters of Slovak Lutheranism in Serbia.  Despite obstacles placed by Serbian custom officials, two literature shipments recently arrived.  Churches in Serbia are too poor to fund the publishing of Christian literature presently.  Inflation is running as high as several percentage points daily:  An average monthly salary in December was valued at $44, in January, it was down to $25.  Rev. Dragoslav Strajnic, a Pentecostal pastor who returned to Serbia from France in 1989, stated in desperation, "We're here and we're ready to work, but we're not being given the financial means to do our job.  We believers are not making the war, and we should not be punished with sanctions.  There is no justification for ignoring us, because we are not responsible for this war."


For the first time since World War II, the churches in all of Yugoslavia are finally free to do social and youth work without massive government intervention.  Yet present economic restrictions have kept most projects from being realized.  "Fortunately," Bishop Beredi added, "most of our congregations are rural.  In hard times, it's easier to survive in the countryside."


According to Bishop Uhorskai, who visited the Voyvodina in November, a rural orientation is a mixed blessing:  The church in the Voyvodina has developed little work among the intelligentsia and with young people.  "They're where we were 80 or a 100 years ago," he concluded.


On paper, Voyvodina Lutherans have 51,000 members, making them the largest Protestant denomination in all of ex-Yugoslavia.  Membership of the Croatian church is listed as nearly 5,000, though there are less than 1,000 active members.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, March 3, 1993


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 803 words