Lutherans Holding Out in the Yugoslav War

On Sundays, Sarajevo Protestants have nowhere to go: Not a single Protestant church service is offered.  But one can visit a Seventh-Day Adventist service on Saturdays.  Even they have no pastor: In early 1994, not a single civilian Protestant pastor lived in Sarajevo.  Since the Olympics ten years ago, the city has been without a Lutheran pastor.


The Lutheran flame remains tiny but steady: The father-and-son team of Zlatan and Samir Sofo are holding the fort until better times arrive.  No one now in Sarajevo is capable of gathering the tiny Lutheran flock. A phosphorous bomb razed Samir's attic flat on September 17, 1992, reducing many church documents to ashes.  "Let's hope they still have address lists at church headquarters in Zagreb!" Samir, a lawyer, exclaimed.  "Many have left, and we don't know where they've gone."  Numerous Lutherans had lived in outlying suburbs now controlled by the Serbs.


Few families in Sarajevo remain whole: Samir's wife Alma, a medical doctor, and their small son traveled 90 miles north to Tesanj near Maglaj on April 4, 1992 to visit her parents.  That night, Serbian troops blockaded Sarajevo.  Though they have had radio contact, the family hasn't been together since.  Zeljko Puretic, a leading lay member of the congregation, was killed by a grenade two years ago.


Father and son Sofo regard it as their duty to maintain the church's property.  They have renovated and improved a house used for office and chapel space with their own hands and pocketbooks.  The majestic Lutheran church built in 1898 was confiscated by the communist government after World War II, the smaller building was later given to the congregation as compensation.  Both buildings have suffered only minor war damage.


Family Sofo clings to the faint hope that the Lutheran World Federation's relief program will open a Sarajevo office.  Samir claimed: "We know Lutheran aid has been coming here; we've seen packages with the name 'Lutheran' on them.  But this is anonymous aid.  It would be much better if someone such as LWF would come and raise the Lutheran flag.  That would show people we exist and help regather the congregation.  We have office space waiting for them."  A sole relief shipment from the Zagreb-based Croatian Lutheran church has arrived in Sarajevo.


"Only about 20% of all Muslims practice their faith," Samir continued.  "There are many people looking for a non-divisive identity which is neither Catholic, Orthodox, nor Muslim.  That is what makes Lutheranism attractive."


Elsewhere, in the tense Serb-held region of Croatia called Krajina, the Lutheran presence is more obvious.  In Ilok overlooking the Danube 25 miles south of the destroyed city of Vukovar, Jerislav Slujka is pastoring a Slovak-speaking church of 800 members.  "The Serbs see us as Croats," one Lutheran concluded.  "After all, we have the same 'Catholic' calendar."  Virtually all non-Serbs are unemployed, those older Lutherans who remain are holding on to real estate and awaiting more normal times.


Tensions remain high: The Catholic cathedral in Ilok was attacked three times by grenades and rockets during the past year.  After the war in late 1991 and intervention by UN agencies, one Lutheran family in another town was able to return home.  They found their house damaged and plundered.  Even today, their towels wave from a neighbor's clothesline.  "Our neighbors are the only ones with guns, so we don't feel in a position to make any demands," a friend explained.  For security reasons, neither the Lutheran nor the Reformed bishop in Serbia has ventured into the Krajina.


Even inner-church Lutheran tensions between Croatia and Serbia remain high.  Andrej Beredi, Bishop of the Slovak-speaking church in Vojvodina/Serbia, claims the Croatian delegation to a January conference in Beuggen, Germany had arrived intending to avoid all conversation with his Slovak delegation.  "Thanks to the mediation skills of Karl-Christoph Epting from the “Gustav-Adolf-Werk”, the climate improved significantly," Bishop Beredi added.  "In the end we were able to close with communion and a common resolution."


Endre Langh, a Reformed pastor from Croatia, did not attend the sessions in Beuggen.  Langh's attempts to create an independent Reformed church in Croatia are opposed by the ethnic-Hungarian, Reformed mother church in Vojvodina.


The Christians of Serbia groan under the burden of international sanctions.  Bishop Beredi retrieved the church books to prove that he had officiated at 34 funerals last year, up from the old average of 18 per year.  "These are the victims of extensive Western sanctions," the Bishop concluded.  "The West is responsible for these deaths, not [Premier] Milosevic.  Jesus would not have acted like this."


Senior Vlado Deutsch, head of the Lutheran church in Croatia and Bosnia, sees the matter differently.  In Zagreb he stated: "Because Bishop Beredi is afraid, he tried to get a resolution against Western sanctions passed in Beuggen.  He didn't succeed."


William Yoder

Berlin, March 8, 1994


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 797 words

Note from January 2021: Of the persons mentioned, at least Milosevic, Andrej Beredi and Vlado Deutsch, who died in 1999, are no longer living. Karl-Christoph Epting (born 1940) served as president of Germany’s “Gustav-Adolf-Werk” from 1992 until 2003.