In the face of ceaseless killing and mounting political pressure, one of the smallest evangelical communities in the world is struggling to stay true to its values of nonviolence and interethnic fellowship while simultaneously responding to a growing interest in the gospel.
"I am an Albanian, and I am hoping for an independent Kosovo," says Ranko P., an emerging evangelical leader in the ethnically Albanian but politically Serbian province of Kosovo at the heart of the Balkans.
"There is no alternative to independence," he adds firmly. "But as a Christian I renounce violence, so I do not support the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)."
Reluctantly, Ranko admits that, at times, he feels hatred toward the Serbs. "But Jesus has kept me from going to the mountains," he says, using an old idiom that connotes "joining the rebels," in this case the KLA, the Albanian guerrillas engaging the Serbian government forces in the latest of the wars fragmenting and devastating the former Yugoslavia.
Kosovo-Albanian evangelicals take a clear stand for peace and reconciliation. Soon after the outbreak of war in March 1998, they appealed to the international church to pray for "dialogue and understanding between the peoples in Yugoslavia." But Ranko admits that the political pressures make it increasingly difficult for Christians to live according to their values. "We want to be 100 percent Christians, and 100 percent Albanians, but it is hard to keep the balance," he explains. "If we emphasize our Albanian identity, we are rebels to the ruling Serbs. If we stress the unity of all believers, including the unity with Serbian Christians, we are traitors to the KLA." Ranko says, "We take our people to Bible training in Serbia. If Serbian believers come to us, we welcome them in the privacy of our homes. But we don't evangelize among the Serbs living in Kosovo, and we don't speak about our contacts with Serbs in public."
After a pause he thoughtfully adds, "You hear of the KLA executing traitors. And the Serbian police keep threatening us."
STRUGGLE INTENSIFIES: Kosovo has been called the "West Bank of Yugoslavia." The Serbs, predominantly Orthodox Christians as are the Russians, claim the land for historical and religious reasons. The Muslim Albanians, constituting 90 percent of the province's 2.2 million inhabitants, hold that Kosovo is their homeland. The modern-day conflict started in 1981, escalated in 1991, and exploded last March. Last year, more than 2,000 Albanians and 1,000 Serbs were killed in the war. Serbian forces wiped out more than 2,000 Albanian villages, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless (CT, March 6, 1995, p. 56). Neither side respects the armistice enforced by nato in October. The unemployment rate is 70 percent. According to the Austrian branch of Caritas, one of the major humanitarian agencies operating in the former Yugoslavia, 800,000 Kosovo-Albanians are in desperate need of outside aid to survive the winter.
EVANGELICALS PINPOINTED: The evangelical church community in Kosovo comprises less than.01 percent of Kosovo-Albanians and numbers no more than 200. Most believers are young; many are teenagers. The war is adding to the pressures of living among a vast Muslim majority.
"So far, no believer has been killed or badly hurt during the war," Ranko told Christianity Today. "The churches are in the cities, and the war is being fought on the countryside. But our pastors cannot travel to visit with and support each other, because the KLA frequently holds up cars and buses to force young men 'to the mountains,' that is, to draft them." In today's Kosovo, Ranko says, only women can travel with some measure of safety.
"The Serbian police," he continues, "occasionally seem pleased that Kosovo-Albanians confess Christianity and not Islam. But as soon as they realize that we are non-Orthodox, they brand us a cult and treat us accordingly. Also, some of the Albanian churches are not registered, and that is a major problem." A pastor of a nonregistered church had his apartment lease annulled by police twice in 1998 for "spreading cult propaganda." Police also repeatedly threatened to detain him for "illegal activities."
Last year, a Serbian police officer attempted to provoke a man in a group of Kosovo-Albanian Christians being questioned at a checkpoint. "One policeman showed pictures of Orthodox saints and commanded the brother to name them," Ranko relates. " 'If you are a Christian,' the policeman said, 'you must know the saints.' When the brother could not answer, the officer beat him with the butt of his gun. He also shouted at the whole group and threatened to shoot everyone on the spot. But in the end he marched them back into their van and let them go."
Ranko says the Christian group initially reacted with anger and made plans to pursue the case locally and internationally. But after discussion and prayer, the beaten man suggested they forgive and forget, and the church leaders concurred. "But this does not mean that we will never protest," Ranko points out.
LIFESTYLE UPHEAVAL: Problems arising from being caught up in politics and war go beyond single occurrences, however disturbing. The Kosovo-Albanian evangelical church emerged at the beginning of the 1980s as an integral part of the Yugoslavian Pentecostal movement, the leading evangelical force in the country. Church leaders from different parts of the then multiethnic country—Croats, Slovenes, Hungarians, and Serbs—provided mentoring and legal covering. The fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia has cut the supply lines. Travel is restricted between Kosovo and the "evangelical Jerusalem" of the former Yugoslavia, the Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia, under the leadership of Peter Kuzmic. The Pentecostals in Serbia try to help the small Albanian churches in Serbian Kosovo, but they also face political pressures, leaders told CT.
"We are certainly committed to the Kosovo-Albanian churches," says Simo K., one of the Pentecostal leaders in Serbia. "The registered churches in Kosovo belong to our denomination. But to push for the registration of the new churches, we need some sort of a guarantee from the Albanian brothers that they will steer clear of nationalistic politics in the future, or the Serbian authorities will conclude that we support the 'Albanian rebels.' Even now the government treats us as a dangerous sect, and a new law restricting further the freedom of religion is pending. There is a limit to what we can handle."
Serbian pastors told CT that they favor Albanian autonomy in Kosovo, but they have little understanding of the cry for independence. Kosovo-Albanian pastors, on the other hand, say independence must come. Under long-time Communist President Tito, Kosovo had been an autonomous Yugoslavian province with its own parliament as well as Albanian-speaking schools. After Tito's death in 1980, new Serbian rulers of Yugoslavia started undermining Albanian autonomy. Inhabitants accused Serbian police of feeding poisoned food to schoolchildren, administering narcotic injections to pregnant women, displacing thousands of people, torturing some detainees, and imprisoning others. In 1989, the Yugoslavian government under Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic formally abolished Kosovo's autonomy. The Kosovo-Albanians responded by appointing a shadow government. And many young men took "to the mountains" as the KLA started its guerrilla war for independence.
DOUBLE TAXES, NO VOTE: "Since the beginning of the nineties, we lead a double life," Ranko explains. "We pay double taxes, officially to the Serbian government and unofficially to the Kosovo-Albanian government. Officially there are only Serbian schools, but all Albanian kids go to Albanian schools." In this decade, Kosovo-Albanians also boycotted national elections. A leading Pentecostal in Serbia recently criticized the boycott, saying that Milosevic would have been "voted out of office if the Kosovo-Albanians had come to the polls." Ranko counters emphatically: "Why should we vote? Serbia is not our country!"
The rifts in Kosovo are wide, even wider than in nearby Bosnia. The Albanians are ethnically and linguistically unrelated to the Serbs. To them, Serbia's religious and historical claims to Kosovo represent deliberate falsehoods. "The Serbs lie," as Ranko puts it.
"The young Albanian believers in Kosovo feel under pressure to think and act in a more nationalistic, separatist way," says Simo, the Serbian Pentecostal leader. "But that is not what God wants of his church in the Balkans. It is up to us now, both the Serbian evangelicals and the international church, not to isolate the Kosovo brothers."
CENTURIES-OLD NATIONALISM: In the Balkan context, the idea of a nonnationalistic and interethnic church, given voice by Ranko, Simo, and other evangelical leaders in the former Yugoslavia, is revolutionary. For centuries, church affiliation and national identity have been synonymous. "Being a Serb means being an Orthodox, and being a Croat means being a Catholic," explains Old Testament scholar Carl E. Armerding, director of the Schloss Mittersil Study Center in Austria that specializes in theological training for eastern European Christians. "To leave your church means giving up all that you are."
In the case of Kosovo, religion and nationalism combine to form a particularly explosive mix. The Serbs view the province as the cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy. Kosovo also happens to be the legendary focus of the centuries-long Serbian battle against invading Islamic forces. "The rather fierce nature of Serbian Orthodoxy, and of Serbian nationalism," Armerding says, "has to do with their perception of themselves as the 'defenders of Christendom,' or the 'last dam holding back the deluge of Islam,' and as being left alone and deserted in this fight."
The key event in Serbia's history—retold in numerous folk songs, poems, plays, and films that are still immensely popular—is the Battle of Kosovo Polje, the Blackbird's Plain west of Prishtina, in 1389. At Kosovo Polje, the Serbian King Lazar took on advancing Muslim Turks. The king and his army died and Serbia lost its independence, not to regain it until the 1990s. In the past decade, the Kosovo Polje story and the King Lazar folklore have been propagated ceaselessly by Serbian national media to motivate people to fight again for Serbia's independence.
But there is more to Kosovo Polje than human propaganda. Dragan M., another Pentecostal pastor in Serbia, notes that King Lazar rallied his men in 1389 by declaring that all unwilling to die for Kosovo would be cursed. On the six-hundredth anniversary of the battle in 1989, Dragan says, "Orthodox priests carried the relics of King Lazar in 'holy procession' from town to town, rekindling the 'national spirit' that inspired King Lazar and, they said, reiterated the curse." Milosevic attended at least one of those ceremonies.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS: In many parts of the former Yugoslavia, evangelical churches challenge the religiously overheated nationalism that has been part of Balkan life for centuries. In Novi Sad in Serbia, Pentecostal pastor Aleksandar Mitrovic preached pacifism throughout the Yugoslavian War.
"If we claim to be Christians, we must live by Christian standards," Mitrovic says. He led his Serbian church in prayer for Croatia—and Serbia—week after week. When drafted, he refused to go.
"If you draft me, you must draft all Orthodox priests, too," Mitrovic argued, and authorities sent him home. But national media branded Mitrovic a "Western spy" and a "Croatian-Jesuit agent." Unknown assailants repeatedly broke windows of his church in downtown Novi Sad as late as 1997.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nikola Skrinjaric, a former truck driver, has planted five churches since being stirred by delivering humanitarian aid to Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina. At the time, local Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims fought a deadly civil war that ravaged their beautiful, historic city and killed or maimed thousands. Skrinjaric initially viewed Mostar as a living hell because of exploding shells and shooting snipers. He had no thought of lingering.
"But God spoke to my heart," Skrinjaric recalls, "saying that I was to stay in Mostar and start planting churches with one-third Catholic, one-third Orthodox, and one-third Muslim converts in the midst of war." Skrinjaric reacted incredulously at first. "The idea of these three people groups sharing life in one church was so incredible that I did not dare to share it with anyone for a long time," he remembers. But he obeyed, and within months people from all three factions had started worshiping together.
MIRACULOUS RECONCILIATION: The walls dividing people groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina are originally religious, or closely associated with religion. Ethnically, Bosnian Croats, Serbs, and Muslims are all southern Slavs speaking dialects of the same language. But Croats are Catholics, and Serbs are Orthodox. The Bosnian Muslims are Serbs or Croats whose ancestors converted to Islam at some point. In 1972, a new law turned these Bosnians into a "Yugoslavian nationality" called Muslim.
Karmelo Kresonja is pastor of the Evangelical Church in West Mostar, one of the congregations that Skrinjaric pioneered. Its members are one-third Croats, one-third Serbs, and one-third "Christian Muslims." The same proportions can be found in the other new churches. "If you had asked me beforehand if these peoples could live together, I would have said no," Kresonja says. "What we are witnessing in Bosnia-Herzegovina is a true miracle of divine reconciliation and healing."
MINISTRY OPPORTUNITY: As in Bosnia, the war makes people in Kosovo more open to the gospel.
"The atmosphere has changed," says 23-year-old Driton K., who copastors the biggest Albanian-Evangelical church in Kosovo with his brother Artur, 21. Around 60 people attend weekly services in a coffee shop in Prishtina. The average age is 18. "There is an influx of young people in particular," Driton says, "and it has become very easy to strike up conversations about Jesus and the gospel at the university."
Overall, he says, most people are insecure about the future, about a lack of jobs, and whether the war will intensify as it has in Bosnia. "Few people manage to earn anything in Kosovo," explains Driton. "In most families there is somebody working in Germany or Switzerland."
Driton says most Kosovo-Albanians look to the West for support and hope, and in this context even the "Western-style worship" in the young Pentecostal churches attracts people.
The recent conversion of 19-year-old Agron from a village 25 miles from the capital particularly encouraged Driton. Agron had been a student of the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, and was a year away from being graduated as a teacher of Islam. Despite opposition from parents, friends, and former teachers, Agron is actively planning a church plant in his home village.
"To cope with the possible growth, we need support on all levels," says Driton, who is organizing a series of Bible seminars in Prishtana with U.S. and British teachers. "We also want to send our young people to Bible college."
RELIEF ALLEVIATES SUSPICIONS: Kuzmic, who moved back to Croatia last summer from the United States to help with ministry efforts, says this winter is a key time for displaced people in Kosovo.
"Thousands of refugees have no homes to return to as their homes have been burned along with their harvest," Kuzmic says. "Others are afraid to return to their homes and are roaming in the hills and forests."
But ministries inside and outside of Kosovo are responding to humanitarian needs. Bread of Life, in cooperation with groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee and World Relief, is reaching 20,000 displaced people. The ministry is distributing monthly food packets, along with goats, sows, chickens, and cows, to elderly refugees from Croatia and Bosnia who cannot return home. Bread of Life is also giving firewood and woodburning stoves to elderly refugees.
"In this area where so many people have suffered because of divisive politics, we Christians must speak another language, not the political language," says Bread of Life codirector Jasmina Tosic. "We must follow Christ's example and show equal compassion for all suffering people despite the political storms that divide."
The Assemblies of God (AG) is one of the U.S. denominations working in Kosovo to provide food, clothing, and bedding. "As Christians, we feel a deep sense of responsibility to minister to these hurting people, all of whom are Muslim," says Greg Mundis, director of AG missions in Europe. "We must show them that God is not a God of cruelty, evil, and hatred, but of love, compassion, and mercy."
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