A Partnership with a Difference
The Baptists of Serbia and Russia are developing a partnership
M o s c o w -- The Baptists of Serbia and Russia are developing a partnership with a difference: a partnership between two Slavic countries. That desire was made public by the presence of Vitaly Vlasenko (Moscow), Director of External Church Relations for the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB) in the South Serbian city of Niš on 30 April and 1 May. On those days, the “Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists of Serbia (Serbia South)” commemorated the 1.700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. Honour guests also included John Upton (Richmond/Virginia), President of the Baptist World Alliance, and Akos Bukovsky (Budapest) representing Hungary’s Baptist union. President of the South Serbian union is Cedo Ralević; 60 persons attended the two-day event.
Russia and Serbia have been “comrades in arms” for centuries, with Russia repeatedly going to bat for Serbia against the aggressive advances of its Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian neighbours. A special relationship exists for similar reasons between Russians and Bulgarians – another Slavic and Orthodox nation.
Roman emperor Constantine the Great (or Constantine I) was born in Naissus within the present-day city of Niš around 272 A.D. After several centuries of brutal persecution for Christians, he and the rival Roman emperor Licinius engineered a major political about-face by passing the Edict of Milan in 313. This radical agreement legalised the Christian faith as well as all other faiths present within the empire. Constantine’s baptism shortly before his death in 337 made him the first officially Christian emperor. Yet the new law was not a perfect fit for later-day Anabaptists or the free-church evangelicals of today. Constantine lapsed into state preference and patronage of a single religion. Such “Constantinianism” remains very much a problem in today’s Serbia and Eastern Europe.
This commemoration can be described as a cry for help by the tiny 700-member, 14-congregation-strong Baptist union of Southern Serbia. In 2006, “non-traditional” faiths such as the Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists lost their tax-free status and official recognition as religious organizations. Both had been present in Serbia for more than a century. “Non-traditional” faiths have occasionally been subjected to physical violence by criminal groups. Relations worsened further when Tomislav Nikolić, a former leader in accused war criminal Vojislav Šešelj’s radical nationalist party, became president in May 2012. Yet Serbia, an official candidate to join the European Union, will need to modify its legislation on religion if it is ever to become a member.
Serbs view Roman Catholics as Croats or Slovenes. True to their reputation, Croatian Catholics held prayer vigils and struggled for the release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, two Croatian generals sentenced to long prison terms by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. After being absolved of all guilt and released on 16 November 2012, they returned home to a hero’s welcome in Zagreb. The reaction across Serbia was one of disgust and despair.
Free-church Protestants are of course much smaller “fish” – they tend to be regarded as the small-scale agents of pro-NATO Western governments. Serb Baptists therefore demand to be accepted as a legitimate and genuine Christian confession by their compatriots. In a statement immediately following the Niš commemoration, the South Serbian leadership wrote: “Generally, the Edict of Milan still needs to be fully realized. . . . We Baptists hope . . . that we as a minority of the minority can be understood and regarded as a church which proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as the only true God and Saviour.”
In Moscow, Vlasenko reported that a coming Russian-Serb partnership should include efforts for mediation and reconciliation in a region torn by war and ethnic strife. These would include pressure on Western and Kosovo governments to create documentation and pay compensation to the thousands of Serb refugees driven from their homes in Kosovo by ethnic cleansing beginning in 1999. The department head noted that relations between the Baptists of Albania and Serbia are also in need of improvement. Russian Baptists are experienced in top-level negotiations with the Orthodox and could help develop relations with the Serbian Orthodox. One of the few Baptist-Orthodox meetings during this commemoration occurred when foreign participants met the long-time, European-minded Orthodox journalist and confidant of patriarchs, Živica Tucić, in Belgrade.
Even Baptist-Baptist relations within Serbia are in need of improvement. The larger “Union of Baptist Churches in Serbia (Serbia North)” consists of 69 congregations with roughly 1.983 members. Its support base is located in Belgrade and the northern region of Vojvodina. Between 1699 and 1918, the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region was part of the Austrian Hapsburg empire. Vitaly Vlasenko insisted: “We will relate to both unions – we do not view them as separated. We do not differentiate between Serbians and citizens of Serbia.” The president of the Northern Baptists, Ondrej Franka (Bački Petrovac) for ex., is an ethnic Slovak. Serbian and Russian Baptists also have no desire to have their partnership directed against the West. One possible programme proposed by John Upton, a summer English camp attended by Russians and residents of Serbia, would most likely be taught by North Americans.
A census in 2002 tallied 80,837 Protestants within Serbia’s borders, excluding Kosovo. That amounts to 1,08% of the total population – a proportion very similar to the Russian one. The majority of these Protestants are ethnic-Slovak Lutherans in Vojvodina region. The Reformed living in that region are usually Hungarian.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 24 May 2013
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