Church Tensions in Serbia

Life is surprisingly calm for the Lutheran church of Croatia.  The majority Catholic church has largely accepted it as a legitimate, native part of Croatian society.  Steady growth is occurring: Membership presently peaks at 7,500.


Matters are more unruly in Serb-held territories: Nationalist Orthodox bishops such as Atanasije of Mostar and  Amfilohija of Montenegro have expressed support for radical paramilitary forces such as the Chetniks and called for battle against the decadent, once-Christian West.


Last June, the Orthodox paper, "Pravoslavlje", printed Atansije's attack on the mayor of Trebinje in Serb-ruled Bosnia.  The mayor was accused of "acting like a Democrat" and tolerating the "soul-killing propaganda" of local Adventists.  The Bishop added that the Adventists, "like everything devilish", stem from America.  Another article implied that evangelical groups were similar to Satanist ones.  "Vojska", the military magazine, repeated the theory that foreign pluralistic influences undermine the fighting will of the Serbian people.        


A Christmas letter signed by the Orthodox Patriarch, Pavle, and his bishops later warned strongly against Western influences. A letter from the Orthodox bishops last July had condemned the UN plan for Bosnia and the return of any territory now controlled by the Serbs.  This provoked an angry response by Germany's Evangelical Church (EKD) calling the paper an "intolerable overstatement of the union of nationality and religion".


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 has given the Orthodox church all the privileges of a state church.  Atanasije has therefore called in print for the overthrow of ex-Communist Slobodan Milosevic, president of rump Yugoslavia.


Evangelicals though prefer 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."


Nevertheless, the historic Reformation churches remain somewhat cushioned from this struggle.  Since they represent national minorities and usually speak a foreign language, they are not officially in competition with the Orthodox for the allegiance of the Serbian people.  Andrej Beredi, Bishop of the Slovak Lutheran Church in the Voyvodina (northern Serbia), takes a very cautious stance.  He combats attempts by German Lutheran circles to scold or boycott the Serbian Orthodox church.  Fearing charges of "proselytization", he declines to engage in evangelism.


The two-year-old "Ecumenical Humanitarian Service" regards this position as timid.  It has opened a study center in Feketic, Voyvodina with aid from Hungarian Protestants and attempts to take a stand on moral and political issues.  This organization was founded by Hungarian-speaking Reformed groups with Lutheran support.  By hiring Orthodox and Catholic employees, it is now beginning to reflect the multi-ethnic, pluralistic flavor of north Serbian society.


Dr. Bill Yoder

Berlin, March 18, 1995                                                            


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 460 words