Evangelicals in Yugoslavia

Tiny but Multi-National


A Bible school in the village of Backi Petrovac near Novi Sad in the northern province of Voyvodina, the "Christian Evangelistic Center" (KES), prides itself in housing nearly as many nationalities as students: 18. Multiple-ethnicity is a major selling-point for ex-Yugoslavia's evangelical churches. Yet these small churches share a common ailment with the present governments on the territory of the old Yugoslavia: All would rather be small and independent than large and interdependent.


The Evangelical Alliance formed during the past decade hopes to overcome the disorder and provide evangelical groups with a unified voice vis-a-vis the state, Though it purports to represent 11,000 believers, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, the "Protestant Evangelical Church", remains distant. An evangelical women's organization recently quit the Alliance.


Though the NATO bombings from March-June 1999 helped close the evangelical ranks within Yugoslavia, they also precipitated a trying ordeal in Orthodox-evangelical relations. Mobs damaged evangelical property in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis. Theologians relying on geopolitics perceived the NATO intervention as an attack of world Protestantism on the Orthodox. Before the visit of Jesse Jackson in May, Belgrade Baptists composed a desperate, rambling letter to the international Baptist community begging for increased moral and political support.


Despite the trials of 1999, an ethnic-Hungarian Yugoslav relief official believes the Serbian nation is still far removed from a national "catharsis". Dissident circles have proffered the German church's "Stuttgart Declaration" from 1945 as a possible model for Serbia. But the peoples of Serbia are not yet accepting any suggestion that the bombings on their territory might be an indirect consequence of Serbian crimes in Vukovar, Sarajevo and Srbrenica. More than a few Serbian Christians insist humanitarianism was not the true reason for the Kosovo incursion, but only a smoke screen for installing a robust NATO presence in the Balkans. The view prevalent in present contacts between believers in Serbia and the West, that the Christians on the other side of the political divide should more vehemently oppose their own government, was also common in the two German states during the Cold War.


Ecumenical relations are also hampered by cries of proselytism. A children's retreat center in Feketic (Voyvodina) run by the "Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization" (EHO) struggles to bring together children of Hungarian, Rumanian, Slovak, Serbian and Roma (gypsy) backgrounds. Yet any cross-cultural involvement by Protestants with Serbian children can quickly evoke cries of proselytism from conservative Orthodox clergy. Even Lutherans have lofted cries of proselytism. A Baptist theologian recently retorted by asserting that not one of the 25 Lutheran pastors in the Voyvodina is reborn. Of course, evangelicals negating the faith of historically high church clergy should not be astonished when these clergy in turn label them as sectarian.


Yet the humanitarian work of evangelicals is flourishing; the NATO bombings hauled Serbia back onto the relief map. EHO's donations for 1999 were up 300% over the previous year. "Bread of Life", a relief agency run by Baptists and Pentecostals, has become the biggest distributer of aid in Belgrade. Church agencies were the first ones active during and immediately after the bombardment - a fact noted with appreciation by the Serbian government.


David Troyer, a representative of the Ohio-based, conservative Mennonite "Christian Aid Ministries", visited Belgrade's Ministry for Religious Affairs as the air raid sirens were still sounding. Fellow American humanitarian workers John and Holly (last name dropped) spent the entire 78 days of bombardment in Belgrade. Undaunted by visa hassles, the British travel- and missions agency "Oak Hall" arrived at Backi Petrovac with relief goods and 80 visitors last November. It was this organization's 32nd visit to ex-Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Regarded with suspicion because of their Western ties, Protestant relief agencies nevertheless passed police security checks in late 1999 with flying colors.


On the education sector Professor Alexander Birvis, a Belgrade-based Baptist theologian, is hoping to reopen the long-closed Baptist seminary in Novi Sad this Fall. He eventually also reckons with foreign students from Macedonia, Bulgaria and Rumania.


Of course, the relief drop-in-the-bucket for Serbia lags far behind aid donated to Kosovo. A Swedish Baptist relief official claims that 286 humanitarian agencies operate in Kosovo - in Serbia, roughly 10. "Church relief is guided by Western media," he concludes, "not by the Holy Spirit."


Yet the likelihood of Yugoslavs uncoupling themselves from the West is remote. Though the US-embassy in Belgrade is shuttered and battered, the four Belgrade outlets of a US-hamburger chain famous for its golden arches are thriving. The recent bombings have not shortened the lines of young adults encompassing the Canadian embassy desperate to leave Serbia behind them. Undoubtedly, Yugoslavia's destruction and reconstruction will be funded by the same countries, for there is no one else capable of doing so. "We may be Europe's tail," the Lutheran Bishop Jan Valent concedes, "but we still belong to Europe."


Dr. Bill Yoder

Berlin, January 30, 2000


Written for “Christianity Today” in Carol Stream/USA, 808 words