Rivalry among the many ethnic factions has historically spilled over into the churches.
“Yugoslavia is the despair of tidy minds.” With these unpromising words—discouraging to those who struggle to understand it—Trevor Beeson begins his chapter on the country in Discretion and Valour (1974). He describes it as a “minefield” for would-be commentators, however sensitive and well informed. I have tried to heed his warning: after a brief visit I can share only the tentative gleanings of my reading, looking, and listening.
Artificially created in 1918 out of territories that were previously Austrian, Hungarian, Italian, and Turkish, Yugoslavia is now a “Socialist Federal Republic.” The historical rivalry between the Serbs (42 percent) and the Croats (22 percent), and between 10 other ethnic groups, continues unabated. It is unfortunately exacerbated by religious differences. Most of the inhabitants of Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia are traditionally Orthodox, while Croatia and Slovenia are strongly Roman Catholic: to diverge from these traditions is regarded as disloyalty to one’s cultural heritage. In addition, large areas of the south are predominantly Moslem. Throughout the country, 11 percent of the people are Moslems, while official figures put self-styled atheists as high as 12 percent.
Being part of Eastern Europe (though regarded as “Western” by the Soviet bloc), Yugoslavia is of course committed to communism. Yet President Josip Broz Tito, who won the eternal gratitude of Yugoslavs (movingly expressed in the nationwide tributes at his funeral) by leading their freedom fighters in the repulse of the Germans in 1944, also boldly rejected the Moscow line in 1948. Since Stalin’s death in 1953, under Tito’s continuing leadership the country has enjoyed reforms in the direction of a mixed economy and, generally, an increasing measure of religious freedom.
The history of relations between church and state in Yugoslavia is complex, and the tide of religious freedom has ebbed and flowed. At first, in keeping with their Marxist ideology, the Communist leaders proclaimed their conviction that religion would wither and die. Yet the first constitution of 1946, while affirming the separation of church and state, and prohibiting all political activities by the church, guaranteed freedom of belief and worship. The oppression of the Roman Catholic church in the late forties and early fifties had strong political overtones. The tension between Yugoslavia and Italy was exacerbated by the Vatican’s “interference” in the affairs of the Roman Catholic church. Diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and the Vatican, ruptured in 1952, were resumed only in 1970 after the Protocol of 1966 reaffirmed both the state’s guarantee of religious freedom and the church’s renunciation of political activity. An organization called “Christianity Today” was founded in 1967 with a view to promoting the spirit of Vatican II.
In the early seventies, government fears that Croat nationalism and Communist revisionism were threatening the national unity led to a renewal of repressive activity, from which the church also suffered. But now the pendulum has swung again. Although there is still some antireligious propaganda in the schools and the army, and the public expression of religious faith is restricted to religious buildings (except for baptisms, weddings, and funerals), yet the profession, practice, and propagation of Christianity is unhindered. Bibles and Christian literature are on sale even in secular bookshops, and Christians are not being harassed.
Protestant Christians at less than 1 percent of the population are what Stella Alexander in Church and State in Yugoslavia Since 1945 (1979) rightly calls “only a minute proportion of the inhabitants of Yugoslavia.” They include Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, and Christian Brethren. In spite of their small numbers the Protestant churches have not enjoyed very cordial relationships with each other. There has often been competition instead of cooperation.
It was thus an earnest of good things to come that about 150 pastors and church leaders (two or three times as many as had been expected) participated in a seminar during the weekend after Easter. Coming from six denominations, all parts of the country, and many age and language groups, they constituted an extremely varied gathering. Indeed, this was the first interdenominational pastors’ conference ever to be held in Yugoslavia. (One or two of those present had scarcely met since the Lausanne Congress.) The seminar took place at the Baptist Theological School in Novi Sad, 50 miles northwest of Belgrade. Its convenors were Stjepan Orčić, the principal of the school, Dr. Branko Lovreć, a Baptist layman who is a physician turned editor and publisher, and Peter Kuzmić, the young director of the Biblical Theological Institute (Pentecostal) in Zagreb. In addition, it had the good will of Dr. Josip Horak, dean of the Theological Faculty in Zagreb (founded in 1976), although he was not able to be present, while Bishop Struhárik of the Slovak Lutheran church and Bishop Csete of the Reformed church both sent personal representatives.
The theme of the weekend was “Aspects of the Church Today.” Expository biblical studies were given on Christ’s will for his people (John 17), the marks of a Spirit-filled church (Acts 2), evangelism (1 Thess. 1), ideals of pastoral ministry (1 Thess. 2), unity and diversity (Eph. 4), and the church in society (Matt. 5 and 6). Groups then discussed this biblical teaching in relation to their local situations. The seminar was entirely free of acrimony and tension. Instead, the Holy Spirit gave an extraordinary degree of love, joy, and peace. Leaders who had been critical of one another, and not even on speaking terms, were seen worshiping together, laughing together, and embracing one another.
On the final day, the groups expressed a unanimous wish to continue such meetings, and to establish an evangelical fellowship that would both express their common evangelical identity (agreeing on the primary biblical doctrines, while respecting each other’s viewpoints on secondary matters) and facilitate cooperation. This was only a beginning, of course, but it was unanimously decided to send to all evangelical pastors in Yugoslavia the proposed basis and aims of the fellowship, together with a summary of the group reports, and to invite both individuals and local churches to join. We need to pray that God himself, who so manifestly began this good work after Easter, will bring it to full maturity. I counted it a great privilege to be present at what others described as a “historic” meeting, and I got a considerable kick out of hearing myself referred to in Serbo-Croat as “Bratta Stotta” (brother Stott) by the middle-aged and as “Tatta Stotta” (daddy Stott) by the young people.
John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."
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