Communists are Becoming Orthodox Believers

Update on Orthodox-Evangelical Relations


Despite isolated developments to the contrary, relations between evangelical groups and East European governments are clearly weakening.  The gradual rehabilitation of old social elites, which were largely communist in orientation, has in many instances united the forces of communism and Orthodoxy.  Both world views are anti-Western in outlook, sharing a common fear and distaste for contemporary Western culture.


Dr. Theo Angelov, president of Bulgaria's Baptist Union, reports the Orthodox "believe evangelicals are introducing Western influences capable of destroying their culture."  East European media are appealing for the worldwide reunification of all Orthodox peoples.  "These are old communistic viewpoints," Angelov assures.  "The communists of yore have suddenly become the most committed Orthodox."


Evangelical growth has contributed to deep-seated Orthodox anxieties.  Nationality is consequently being tied more closely than ever to confession.  According to one spokesperson, the Orthodox of Eastern Europe readily conclude that "Hari Krishna is the Indian religion, Baptist is the American religion, and Orthodoxy, the national religion" of that country.  Suspicions remain regarding the fifth-column connections of Western missionaries:  A local paper in Lithuania recently claimed that non-Catholics in that country were agents of the KGB.


Guram Kumelashvili, president of the Baptist Union of Georgia, recounts that Patriarch Ilya II made a Christmas appeal on national television last January 7.  In it, he warned against foreign churches and sects who "belittle the Georgian church, its pastors and holy people."  The Patriarch denounced these groups as "the devil's machine, without any connections to God" and described those who joined them as having "sold themselves for food and money."  In closing Ilya admonished his listeners to "hold on to our holy faith."  Kumelashvili interprets this address as nothing less than "a declaration of war" against Protestant circles.


Baptists have been publically accused of teaching suicide to young people and attracting them to services by offering them drugs.  A local newspaper in Varna, Bulgaria even charged that Pastor Boshidar Igoff had cannibalized small children.  Rev. Angelov concludes: "Accusations heard during the Communist period have returned.  Worst of all, we have no means of defending ourselves.  We have written many articles and given scores of interviews, but none of these have ever been published."


Angelov insists that the Orthodox "openly display their hatred for us.  Priests who once participated in the World Council of Churches now say they are against ecumenism.  This is a campaign against all who think differently than the mainstream."


This Baptist leader reports further that overt evangelistic efforts have been curtailed in Bulgaria and that prison ministries are no longer possible.  Access to public meeting halls is in many cases no longer possible.  "We need to meet in private houses, just as we did during the communist period," Angelov laments.  Property for the building of churches can no longer be purchased.  The construction of a Congregationalist church in Velingrad, in southern Bulgaria, was abruptly halted, a case which is now being appealed in court.


Agencies involved in church-related activities will soon require re-registration in Bulgaria.  "All groups which will not have been allowed to re-register by the end of May will be expected to cease their activities," he notes.  Though re-registration is not problematic for the denominational churches, the internationally-recognized Bulgarian Evangelical Alliance has not been permitted to register and may become a victim of this recent legislation.


Orthodox and Catholic officials tend to regard the state as an extended arm of the church and expect it to join their denominational causes: Orthodox hierarchies in Albania and Georgia have pushed for the government prosecution of proselytization.  Bishop Viktor Lovgenenko of Moldova reports that "until a few years ago, the law said that no one could become a Baptist without the express permission of the local Orthodox priest, who of course would not give it.  This transported some of our converts into prison."  Current Moldovan laws insure special privileges for the Orthodox while branding virtually all other Christian groups as "sects".


Numerous countries are formulating new religious legislation.  Evangelicals fear that the Greek model, which established the historical national church as the official state church, will find wide acceptance.  Russian lawyer Anatoly Pchelintsev claims that Russian rightist Vladimir Zirinovski has privately expressed his intentions "to eventually outlaw all types of Pentecostals and Baptists."


Thoughtful Western observers are pointing to their own societies' share of the guilt: The escapades of the West's sectarian fringe offer a welcome excuse for attacks on everything evangelical.  The mass tragedy in Waco, Texas and the killing of a medical doctor by abortion activists made front-page news in Albania.


One European study group recently came closer home, distinguishing between para-church organizations "open to learn and dialogue and those not open to consultation and learning."  Viktor Ryagusov of Samara, Russia attributes a portion of the sufferings of his Baptist church to the charismatic movement.  "Charismatics are working throughout our country.  For years we have been trying to evangelize, but you can imagine how the Orthodox priests react when the preacher is ranting and raving, jumping up and down and claiming that such actions are a basis of our faith."


Albert Latuzis of Lithuania claims: "The greatest problem is that most missionaries don't want to listen to the Lithuanian believers and to learn their culture.  They try to transplant what they did in America to Lithuania."


The call for denominational missionaries is clear among the historic churches: "Most of the foreign missionaries can't present themselves effectively because they identify themselves strictly as `Christians'," Ruth Latuzis complains.  "We would be glad for more help from the outside, but until now almost all missionaries have come from para-church organizations."


In an interview with NNI in late March, James Smith, East European liaison for the

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, criticized an evangelistic blitz campaign planned for Albania this Summer.  Sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, 2,000 mostly North American Christians will be evangelizing in major cities for a period of several weeks.  "Even the name `crusade' is highly problematic in a country which is one-third Muslim," he explained.  "When the blitz is over, the small crowd of expatriate missionaries will remain behind to bear the brunt of the Muslim backlash.  Radicals will threaten the missionaries with violence and murder."


A consultation in Dorfweil, Germany at the end of January formulated a course of action for European Baptists: Brochures directed at governments to familiarize them with the beliefs and nature of the Baptist faith are planned.  "Baptists need to be disentangled from other groups", the consultation concluded.  "We must extricate ourselves from the sectarian mob."


Finding persons capable of influencing foreign governments was also given priority.  "Small teams of three members should be set up to visit hot spots with major [denominational] problems."  These should include a representative of the World Baptist Alliance or the European Baptist Federation, a prominent politician, and someone with legal skills.  They would meet with top members of the government; local Baptists should then follow up.  Immediate visits should be planned for Bulgaria, Georgia, and Belgium."  European Baptists also plan to create a legal desk as a resource for churches confronted with governmental persecution.


This approach is applauded by Chris Burnett, a missionary in Albania.  He cites a visit by Jimmy Carter as crucial in blocking legislation favoring the Orthodox and Muslim majority.  Carter's lobbying "swayed the President of Albania to extend religious tolerance to all groups.  His visit helped the Baptists to become established as a valid religious group."


Generally, Protestant invitations to priests to study in the West have brought beneficial results.  The North American training enjoyed by a number of Rumanian Orthodox clergy appears to have influenced ecumenical relations within Rumania positively.


Many seasoned missionaries stress constructive relations with persons of other religious convictions.  One evangelical study concludes: "At the most local level, there is a strong need for individual church members to build positive and respectful relationships with their neighbors."  It upholds support for all groups suffering religious oppression: "We realize that we will need to defend Islamic groups there where they are in the minority."


James Smith proposes a non-confrontational alternative to blitz-style evangelism: "long-term, low-key, village-based, non-threatening friendship evangelism."


Bill Yoder

Berlin, March 29, 1994


Written for “News Network International” in Washington DC, 1,365 words