Most Significant Divide Runs Through the Middle of Orthodoxy

In Divided Mostar, only Volleyball would Work


British charismatics are in evidence among the rubble of Muslim East Mostar.  There they are organizing a sports program for games against teams in Croat-held West Mostar.  A standing joke claims that "Only volleyball would work."  This sport would allow one team to remain strictly on Croatian, the other, strictly on Muslim soil.


Though clearly loyal to their own governments, the evangelicals of ex-Yugoslavia present a unique witness: Their congregations are profoundly multi-ethnic.  One evangelical leader in Croatia points out that mixed marriages involving a Muslim party seem most open to conversion: "Such couples are searching for security.  They no longer have the Yugoslav nationality as an option."


"Every church in Croatia is too small to accept all those who are coming," beams Branco Lovrec, president of the Baptist Union in Croatia.  Having baptized 300 during the past two years, Croatian Baptists now total 1,600 members.  Emigration, not war, has thinned their ranks in recent times.


A Pentecostal church in West Mostar is thriving.  Attendance in two tiny rooms averages 200; yet only three of its members stem from the previous, destroyed church center in East Mostar.  A small Baptist congregation is again active in Sarajevo as well as a Pentecostal one in Tuzla.  Evangelicals are also expanding their ranks in Serbia: A Pentecostal congregation of 250 members led by Aleksandar Mitrovic plans to move into Novi Sad's imposing Jewish synagogue this summer.


Though relations between the evangelicals of Serbia and Croatia remain deeply troubled, ties between evangelical bodies on the same side of the war frontier have improved markedly: Baptists and Pentecostals are cooperating on church-planting and relief projects.


The volume of emergency humanitarian aid has dropped dramatically.  The Baptist "Duhovna Stvarnost" agency in Croatia only sent 70 tons of food to Bosnia in 1994, down 930 tons from the previous year.  Nevertheless, positive repercussions remain: Baptists were among the invited guests during the Pope's historic address in Zagreb last September.  "The Catholics have accepted us as a church, not as a sect," concludes Lovrec.  "This proves that our steps have been wise." Lovrec' rejection of the sectarian past alarms traditionalist evangelicals who continue to regard the papal office as an expression of the Antichrist.


The evangelicals remain far less than equals to the preponderant Catholic church.  Though evangelical religion classes have received state accreditation, appeals for access to state-controlled media remain unanswered.


The advances of evangelicals in Western-oriented Croatia are matched by setbacks in Serb-held territories.  Nationalist Orthodox bishops such as Atanasije of Mostar and Amfilohija of Montenegro have publically allied themselves with extremist paramilitary forces and are castigating the Protestant West.


Last June the official Orthodox paper, "Pravoslavlje", printed Atanasije's attack on the mayor of Trebinje in Serb-held Bosnia, accusing him of "acting like a democrat" and tolerating the "soul-killing propaganda" of local Adventists.  The Bishop, in exile near Mostar, pointed out that the Adventists, "like everything devilish", come from America.  Another article placed evangelical groups in the vicinity of Satanist ones.  An acrimonious exchange in the magazine "Nin" between Atanasije and Professor Aleksandar Birvis, a Baptist pastor in Belgrade, followed.


"Vojska", the military magazine, later propounded the theory that only a monolithic Serbian and Orthodox nation could be strong: Foreign pluralistic influences divide and undermine the fighting will of the Serbian people.  A Christmas letter signed by the Orthodox Patriarch, Pavle, and his bishops warned strongly against Western influences.  Evangelical opportunities to respond are minimal: A protest letter by the Baptists remains unpublished


Radical Orthodox clergy prefer Radovan Karadzic, leader of the "Serbian Republic" of Bosnia.  While church rights in Serbia remain unclarified, the new Bosnian Serb constitution defines the Orthodox church as the state church and concedes major privileges regarding holidays, education and the military.  Atanasije has called for the overthrow the atheist and ex-Communist Slobodan Milosevic, president of the rump Yugoslav state.  According to Orthodox reports, Milosevic did not exempt even church candles from the present sanctions against the Bosnian Serb state.  Generals of the once-"godless" Yugoslav army are attacked by clergy for having failed to produce a decisive victory at the outset of the war.


Evangelicals for their part prefer President Milosevic.  The Pentecostal Aleksandar Mitrovic concludes: "Milosevic is good for us.  He's against the war, has rejected [a liberalization of] abortion, and doesn't want to share his power with the Orthodox."


Jasmina Tosic of the evangelical relief agency "Chleb Zivota" claims: "Persecution is coming and it will grow."  Yet Professor Birvis remains more optimistic: "Persecution is a real possibility only if groups such as the Serbian Renewal Movement [Srbski Pokret Odnove] come into power."


Evangelicals should remember that the most significant divide runs through the middle of the Orthodox church, not between the Orthodox and evangelicals.  An Orthodox theologian in Belgrade mentions that Vasilije, bishop of Bijeljina in Serb-held Bosnia, has never condemned the destruction of mosques in his city.  "The two of us are not in the same church," the theologian concludes.  Orthodox Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac, Serbia was labeled a "Judas" in the press for serving as president of the interdenominational Yugoslav Bible Society.


Professor Milorad Pupovac, head of a Serbian political party in Croatia, suggested to "Christianity Today" ways to forge Protestant-Orthodox trust: "Help liberate people from the profane misuse of religion; invite the Orthodox to participate in international institutions; engage in programs of reconstruction in war-torn [Serbian] areas."  A portion of the funding for the new Orthodox seminary in Belgrade stems from foreign church bodies chastised by the Orthodox leadership.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, March 6, 1995


Written for „Christianity Today“ in Carol Steam near Chicago, 915 words