by Sharon Mumper
A special report on the church in Croatia.
Out of the Wings and Onto the Stage, Croatia’s Evangelical Church Gets a New Role
There is still a black spot on the pavement where Paul Mogus’ car stood the day a shell came whistling out of the sky to land directly in front of the Osijek church he co-pastors. The car was completely incinerated., but the church escaped serious damage.
During 10 months of Serbian bombardment of the Croatian city, thousands of bombs battered the section of the city in which the Church of Good News and the adjacent campus of the Evangelical Theological Faculty were located. Miraculously, the church sustained only minor damage and campus buildings suffered only two direct hits, inflicting some $10,000 worth of damage.
Bombing stopped in June last year, and by the following September, classes were once again meeting on the campus in Osijek after a year in cramped makeshift quarters in neighboring Slovenia.
Nearly a year after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect, embattled Osijek has come to life again. Citizens have returned to their homes, refugees from Bosnia and occupied areas of Croatia have crowded into the city, and the church of Good News is full to overflowing.
Despite the quiet nights, unbroken by the sounds of warfare, however, life in Osijek is not "back to normal." The cataclysmic events of the last two years have changed Croatia’s -and its churches-forever.
The Roman Catholic church, which for centuries has dominated Croatia’s religious scene, has shaken off the dust of relative obscurity forced on it by nominalism and nearly half a century of communist rule. "Up and coming" community leaders now attend mass, earning the score of those who see them as mere opportunists.
From the moment Croats—then citizens of a multiethnic Yugoslavia—began to clamor for their own independent country, patriotic feeling centered around the region’s Catholic identity.
Nearly all citizens of Croatia are at least nominally Roman Catholic. Most Serbs are Orthodox. In a region that for centuries has been a powderkeg, the fuse leads to the front door of the church.
"To be Croat is to be Catholic," complain Protestant leaders. As a result, they and their churches are sometimes regarded with suspicion- when they are noticed at all. With fewer than 10,000 adherents, Croatia’s Protestant church comprises less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Fewer than half of all Protestants attend evangelical churches.
Many cities have no evangelical churches at all. Until recently, comparatively few Croats had ever met an evangelical Christian or even knew such churches existed. In many communities, that is changing. The war and ensuing refugee crisis has catapulted the evangelical church out of the sanctuary and into the nation’s streets.
Exhausted in Croatia
Toma Magda, pastor of seven Baptist churches, put 31,000 miles on his car last year-in a country smaller than the state of West Virginia. During the worst of the war, he transported relief goods into hard-hit areas, gave tours of battle zones to Western relief officers, and visited displaced parishioners scattered throughout the country.
Like other evangelical leaders, he spent much of the year in a state of exhaustion. In Croatia, nearly every evangelical church and church leader has been pressed into service to the nearly 1 million refugees and displaced people overflowing the country.
Through some half-dozen newly-organized humanitarian organizations, churches have distributed millions of dollars worth of food, clothing, bedding, and other goods provided by Protestant churches and relief agencies around the world. They have received and passed on to hospitals badly-needed medicines and supplies. They have taken refugees into their own homes and sheltered neighbors in church basements during bombing.
In the process, a church that for decades has been nearly invisible to the society around it has suddenly taken on larger-than-life dimensions as it administers a relief and evangelism effort far out of proportion to its size.
For the first time in decades, new faces are appearing in church, as the curious, the interested, and the grateful take a closer look at the church that is providing food, shelter, and other goods during a time of need.
"We notice people are more open when they get something material," says Paul Mogus, who also serves as an administrator with Agape, a Pentecostal relief agency. "If you don’t help people, it is difficult to talk with them about the gospel," he says. "In this crisis, they expect the church to provide both material and spiritual help."
Students of the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Osijek visit refugee communities every week, distributing relief goods, evangelizing, and counseling. They are amazed to find both Croatian Catholics and Bosnian Muslim refugees open and eager to hear the gospel and receive Christian literature.
New faces appear in the pews
In the In Cakovic, near the Hungarian 170 Muslim Bosnians in temporary quarters last May have been receiving food hygienic supplies From My Neighbor, a Baptist relief organization. Members of a small Baptist church in nearby Buscine package and distribute the food, and bring people to their homes for baths and to wash their clothes.
Touched by their kindness and curious about the faith of these Christians, refugees began to ask whether they could attend church services. At first members came in cars to pick up those who wanted to come on Sunday morning. Soon, they had to rent a bus. Within months, some 50 to 70 Bosnian refugees were attending church, doubling the size of the congregation. Later, as it became evident curiosity had turned to conviction and the refugees were there to stay, German Christians donated a bus.
The impact of the church’s outreach continued to spread. A national newspaper, hearing of the "strange Baptist church," went to investigate and wrote an enthusiastic article. Four Croatian young people in Osijek,; over 100 miles away, read the article with interest. If Muslims were willing to attend a Baptist church it must be worth investigating, they reasoned. The Osijek phone book yielded the name of the local Baptist church, and one day they appeared on Toma Magda’s doorstep. They are now coming to the church, he says, joining a growing number of new faces.
Throughout Croatia, people are turning to the Lord, say Christian leaders. Neighbors of Osijek’s Church of Good News became accustomed to nightly worship services during the bombardment of the city, Huddled in the basement of the multi-purpose building of the neighboring Evangelical Theological Faculty, they .learned to sing to the accompaniment of exploding bombs.
Once quiet returned to the city, many continued to attend worship services. Long-time neighbors of the church who for years displayed little interest in the gospel, made commitments to Christ and were baptized.
Out of the bunkers and into the streets
The movement to Christ in Croatia cannot yet be called a revival, though many Christians are praying for revival. Nevertheless, church growth of any kind is something of a novelty. For much of its recent history, the Protestant church in Croatia hardly grew at all.
One reason, says Ksenija Magda, wife of Toma Magda and editor of the Christian magazine, Tarax, is the church’s traditional separatist mentality; and refusal to mix with the "sinful" world outside its doors.
It took a shared experience in basements and bomb shelters for many to shed their "bunker mentality." Christians forced to live for days or weeks at a time in close quarters with non-Christians learned to open up to "outsiders," and began to take tentative steps toward witnessing.
The need for church help in distribution of relief goods pouring into the country forced members out of their "fortresses" and into the streets.
Many Christians are now to reach as many people as possible, not only with physical help, but with spiritual resources. The Buscine Baptist Church’s 60 members have distributed more than 30,000 New Testaments and 150,000 tracts and Scrip-tore portions to Croatian neighbors and tens of thousands of refugees in their area.
Izvori, the publishing house of the Evangelical Church of Croatia, has published 400,000 copies of the book of Mark for distribution to refugees and others. Some 100,000 copies of the four gospels are being distributed to refugees, high schools, and universities.
Duhovna Stvarnost, a Christian publishing house in Zagreb, directed by Branko Lovrec, has published and distributed 60,000 copies of Billy Graham’s Peace With God. Demand is high, and they would print more if they had the funds. In a project sponsored by the United Bible Societies, they have also printed 5,000 gift editions of a children’s Bible and 10,000 copies of a pocket New Testament for distribution to refugees. At the request of the United Bible Societies, Lovrec is organizing a Croatian Bible Society.
In the chaos of the last year and a half, large evangelistic crusades have been out of the question, say church leaders. Nevertheless, plans were being made for mini-crusades in five locations throughout Croatia in conjunction with simultaneous broadcasts of Billy Graham’s Mission World ’93 in Germany in March.
A Protestant Evangelical Council was organized last year, bringing together major Croatian Protestant denominations, churches, and Christian organizations. Division has marred the history of the church in Croatia, but church leaders hope Christians now will set aside their differences in order to get on with the work before them.
Damir Spoljaric, assistant director of the Evangelical Theological Faculty, says the crisis has served to purify the church and church members. Many have experienced a deepened faith in God, he says. He hopes the tragedy of the last two years leads ultimately to revival. He would like to see a revival like that experienced by Korea, which also, he points out, endured a bloody war.
"Croatia has never had a real spiritual awakening," says Ksenija Magda. "I hope and pray this disaster will turn out for the good of the church and a spiritual awakening of the country."
Whether a major awakening comes to the country or not remains to be seen. For the moment, it is evident the evangelical church, at least, has awakened and moved from the wings of Croatian society onto the stage. A small, beleagured church is coming out of its shell and auditioning for a new, more dynamic role. From all available evidence, it is a good guess they will get the part.
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