Sarajevans wanting to worship in a Protestant service can do so only on Saturdays. Seventh-day Adventists are the sole Protestants still holding church services in the war-torn city.
Though the Adventist population has shriveled to 20 baptized members, its Saturday services are attracting 200 persons. Not a single Protestant pastor remains. “What a shame that we do not have any pastors here!” laments Jasmina Karamehmedovic, a Baptist. “People who had never asked about God before are now crying out to him.”
Young lay members have shouldered the burden at Adventist headquarters. In Belgrade, Sarajevo’s Adventist pastor, Radomir Nikolic, told Christianity Today that he was aware of his workers’ continued well-being. He had recently heard a meditation by Nikolina Mustapic on Sarajevo radio. During heavy shelling months ago, the wiry Mustapic had admonished worshipers to drown out the explosions by singing louder.
Only a few Pentecostals remain in the city since two of its brightest young men fell in combat during the past year.
“Our pastor left 20 months ago,” says Dragan Nedic, a Serbian Pentecostal serving in the primarily Muslim Bosnian army. “Why has he never tried to contact us? No organization has attempted to contact us; it’s as if we were invisible.
“I don’t want to kill, but we have no advocate here,” says Nedic. “Only God knows how much we could have achieved had we stayed together.”
Late last year, Adventist lay preacher Dario Slankamenac spent two months in Sarajevo’s military prison for refusing to carry a weapon within the Bosnian army. The strong reputation of the Adventist Development and Relief Association led to his abrupt release.
Few Sarajevan families remain intact (CT, Feb. 8,1993, p. 62). Samir Sofo’s wife, Alma, and their young son traveled 90 miles north to visit her parents in Tesanj on an April 1992 night the Serbian army blockaded Sarajevo. Imprisoned within separate Muslim-held enclaves, these two Lutheran believers have not seen each other since.
The Protestant presence in Bosnia always has been minuscule. Flight from the present war has made Protestantism virtually extinct. With funds from the Southern Baptists, Ilija Skoric of Belgrade visits families in Serb-held Bosnia. Using contacts gained through the Bread of Life relief agency, he tracks refugees who have returned home to Bosnia from Serbia.
Hunger for the gospel
House churches are forming at Kljuc and Laktasi in the vicinity of Banja Luka. “People are very open for the gospel,” Skoric says. “They are very pleased when we offer them Bibles. Before the war, it was different.”
On a trip to Bosnia in January, Skoric distributed 1,000 Bibles, many of them at military check-points. Skoric hopes to move into an empty house in Laktasi.
In Croatian-held West Mostar, Nikola Skrinjaric is pastoring a new, thriving Pentecostal congregation meeting in a warehouse. Though dozens of members have left, a steady stream of converts has kept the rolls bulging at 130. “If one has the opportunity to leave, one should, because their own future and that of their children is in jeopardy,” Skrinjaric says. “We believe God will bring new people to himself to replace those who have left.” Skrinjaric and his wife have chosen to stay because “we know we would have no peace living elsewhere. We believe God has called us to be here.”
In the destroyed city of Vukovar, Ruznica Simunic and her sister, Hermina, have heard a similar call. They hitchhike to neighboring villages to serve house groups they have founded. As Croats, their lives were endangered during and after the siege in 1991.
“The situation is much better,” says Simunic. “Relatives want us to join them in Australia, but God has called us to serve him here.”
But life near the frontlines in this Serb-controlled corner of Croatia is far from normal. In Dalj, troops from the private army of the Serb radical Arkan secure the safety and screen the guests of Orthodox Archbishop Lukijan. During the past year, the historic Catholic cathedral at Ilok on the Danube was attacked three times. After the church doors were blown away, the priest replaced them with a massive, impenetrable concrete block. The block already is pockmarked by bullets. According to Father Marko, the church’s priest, “Believers are still being harassed by children who throw stones at them on their way to mass.” Methodist superintendent Martin Chovan of Novi Sad contends this church had been used as a weapons arsenal by Croatian extremists during the Vukovar war.
Visits by evangelical leaders to these war zones are rare (CT, Oct. 26, 1992, p. 79). Evangelicals from Vukovar and Plaski in Serb-held Croatia usually are forced to travel to Serbia proper to receive relief and pastoral aid.
Virtually every relief agency is faced with a common dilemma. Because of military roadblocks, they either help feed soldiers, or they feed no one. In addition, Ivan Vacek of the Zagreb-based Duhovna Stvamost relief agency says, “When every adult male in a given village is mobilized, the distinctions between military and civilian become clouded.”
Though Adventists and Baptists assure that food packages never are distributed in connection with church services, these groups are frequently accused of “buying converts.” Andrej Beredi, bishop of northern Serbia’s 51,000 Lutherans, claims Pentecostals are “using relief packages as bait to attract people. They are buying souls.” John Keith of Canadian Baptist International Ministries recognizes little distinction in aid distribution and counters that Baptist relief has “been heavily weighted toward Bosnia, the displaced, and the refugees.” There are virtually no Baptists in Bosnia, Keith says, so how can Baptists be accused of preferential treatment?
Distribution is rarely completely disinterested. Understandably, a Sarajevo evangelical forwards surplus food packages to neighbors of her damaged apartment to keep it from being pillaged.
By Bill Yoder in Sarajevo.
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