Evangelicals in War-Torn Sarajevo

Ex-Yugoslavia’s Wars are Far from Over


Sarajevans wanting to worship in a Protestant service can do so only on Saturdays:  Except for the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Seventh-Day Adventists are the sole Protestants still holding church services in the war-torn city.  Though the Adventist population has shriveled from 100 to 20 baptized members, its Saturday services are attracting 200 persons.  Not a single Protestant pastor remains.  The Baptist Jasmina Karamehmedovic laments:  "What a shame that we do not have any pastors here!  People who had never asked about God before are now crying out to him."


Young lay members have shouldered the burden at Adventist headquarters.  In Belgrade, Sarajevo's Adventist pastor, Radomir Nikolic, informed "Christianity Today" that he was aware of his workers' continued well-being:  He had recently heard a meditation by Nikolina Mustapic on Sarajevo radio.  During heavy shelling months ago, the wiry Mustapic had admonished worshipers to drown out the explosions by singing louder.  Fortunately, Nikolic's return to Sarajevo appears imminent.  When told that family considerations caused all pastors to depart, one Adventist retorted:  "They all say that."


Only a handful of Pentecostals remain in the city; two of its brightest young men fell in combat during the past year. Dragan Nedic, a Serbian Pentecostal, is also serving in the primarily-Muslim Bosnian army:  "Our pastor left 20 months ago.  Why has he never tried to contact us?  No organization has attempted to contact us, it's as if we were invisible.  Why isn't Billy Graham trying to come here?  I can't tell you how disappointed we are."


"I would not have needed to go to war if we would have had an organization here," he continued.  "I don't want to kill, but we have no advocate here.  Only God knows how much we could have achieved had we stayed together."


Late last year, the Adventist lay preacher Dario Slankamenac spent two months in Sarajevo's military prison for refusing to carry a weapon within the Bosnian army.  The strong reputation of the Adventist relief agency, ADRA, undoubtedly led to his abrupt release.  One Jehovah's Witness remains imprisoned in Sarajevo for refusing all forms of noncombatant service.


Few Sarajevan families remain intact.  The Lutheran Samir Sofo's wife, Alma, and their small son traveled 90 miles north to visit her parents in Tesanj on April 4, 1992.  The Serbian army blockaded Sarajevo that night.  Imprisoned within separate Muslim-held enclaves, they haven't seen each other since.


The Protestant presence in Bosnia has always been minuscule.  Flight from the present war has made them virtually extinct.  With funding from the Southern Baptists, Ilija Skoric of Belgrade visits families in Serb-held Bosnia.  Using contacts gained through the "Chleb Zivota" [Bread of Life] relief agency, he tracks refugees who have returned home to Bosnia from Serbia.  House churches are forming at Kljuc and Laktasi in the vicinity of Banja Luka.  "People are very open for the Gospel," Skoric explained.  "They are very pleased when we offer them Bibles.  Before the war, it was different."  On a trip to Bosnia in January, Skoric distributed 1,000 Bibles, many of them at military checkpoints.  Skoric adds that he hopes to move into an empty house in Laktasi soon:  "The Church in Belgrade says it's too dangerous now to stay there with my family."


In Croatian-held West Mostar, Nikola Skrinjaric is pastoring a new, thriving Pentecostal congregation meeting in a warehouse.  Attendance presently peaks at 130.  Though dozens of members have left, a steady stream of converts has kept the rolls bulging.  Skrinjaric assures, "If one has the opportunity to leave, one should, because their own future and that of their children is in jeopardy.  We believe God will bring new people to Himself to replace those who have left."  Skrinjaric and his wife have chosen to remain living on the battlefield "because we know we would have no peace living elsewhere.  We believe God has called us to be here."


In the destroyed city of Vukovar, Ruznica Simunic and her sister, Hermina, have heard a similar call.  They hitchhike to neighboring villages to serve house groups which they have founded.  As Croats, their lives were highly endangered during and after the siege of Vukovar in 1991.  "The situation is much better now," Ruznica Simunic contends.  "We had received a prophecy that we would not be harmed, and that God will in time be granting a great revival here.  Relatives want us to join them in Australia, but God has called us to serve him here."


But life near the frontlines in this Serb-controlled corner of Croatia is far from normal:  In Dalj, troops from the private army of the Serb radical Arkan secure the safety and screen the guests of the Orthodox Archbishop Lukijan.  During the last year, the historic Catholic cathedral at Ilok on the Danube was attacked on three occasions.  After the church doors were blown away, the priest, Father Marko, replaced them with a massive, impenetrable concrete block.  The block is already pockmarked by bullets.  According to Marko, "Believers are still being harassed by children who throw stones at them on their way to mass."  The Methodist Superintendent Martin Chovan of Novi Sad contends this church had been used as a weapons arsenal by Croatian extremists during the Vukovar war.


Visits by evangelical leaders to these war zones are extremely rare.  Evangelicals from Vukovar and Plaski in Serb-held Croatia are usually forced to travel to Serbia proper to receive relief and pastoral aid.


Virtually every relief agency in these war zones is faced with a common dilemma:  Thanks to military roadblocks, they either help feed soldiers, or they feed no one.  In addition, Ivan Vacek of the Zagreb-based "Duhovna Stvarnost" relief agency explains, "When every adult male in a given village is mobilized, the distinctions between military and civilian become clouded."


Though Adventists and Baptists assure that food packages are never distributed in connection with church services, evangelicals are frequently accused of "buying converts".  Andrej Beredi, Bishop of northern Serbia's 51,000 Lutherans, claims that Pentecostals are "using relief packages as bait to attract people.  They are buying souls."


John Keith of Canadian Baptist International Ministries recognizes little bias in aid distribution and counters that Baptist relief has "been heavily weighted towards Bosnia, the displaced, and the refugees."  Since there are virtually no Baptists in Bosnia, how could the Baptists be accused of preferential treatment?


Yet distribution is rarely completely disinterested.  Understandably, a Sarajevo evangelical forwards surplus food packages to the neighbors of her damaged apartment to keep it from being pillaged.



Evangelicals in Serbia and Croatia are surprisingly close on international sanctions.  Aleksander Birvis of Belgrade, a Baptist paster and Serbian patriot, concedes the legitimacy of sanctions on Serbia's heavy industry.  "Sanctions are well-intentioned," he concludes, "but they must hit those who are responsible for the war.  It's ludicrous that sanctions keep Slovenes in Belgrade from obtaining Bibles in their own language."


Peter Kuzmic, President of Croatia's "Evangelical Theological Faculty" agrees:  "My problem is with those [Orthodox clergy] who want sanctions on military aid lifted." Nevertheless, Serbian evangelicals still interpret calls for sanctions as a spiritual affront.  According to Slobodan Andjelic of Belgrade's Pentecostal "Temple of the Holy Trinity", refusing to send humanitarian aid to Serbia is akin to "blocking Croats from attending a church service."


While Serbian evangelicals tend to divide the war guilt equally between all factions, Croatian evangelicals demand a round condemnation of Serbia's military policies.  Andjelic retorts:  "We will never go out on the street and protest.  Such an approach would be political and divisive."  In Serbia, evangelical calls for Western intervention are regarded as unqualified conformity to the Croatian political cause.


Serbian evangelicals approve of the confessionally-neutral state espoused by Milosevic's socialist government:  They see in him a major impediment to the creation of a clerical Orthodox state.  Most Orthodox approve of Milosevic's ethnic policies while decrying his secularist church stance; evangelicals display the opposite preferences.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, March 6, 1994


Written for “Christianity Today” in Carol Stream/USA, 1,309 words