by Sharon Mumper
Reports from around the world.
Yugoslavia, an old patch for a new wineskin?
In Balkanized Yugoslavia, you can often tell a person’s ethnic nationality by his religion. Most Serbians are Orthodox; people from Croatia and Slovenia are largely Roman Catholic; Bosnians are Muslim. In the patchwork of republics and autonomous regions that make up the country, despite 40 years of communist rule, religion is still part and parcel of national cultural identity. It is little more than that.
Forty years ago, 10 Orthodox churches served 320,000 citizens of the largely-Orthodox city of Belgrade. Today, the same 10 churches serve a city that has exploded to 1.3 million. Sadly, the churches are no fuller than they were 40 years ago.
Nearly the same could be said of the country’s Protestant churches. Long considered outsiders-or even traitors to cultural and ethnic identity-Protestants comprise less than 1 percent of the population of Yugoslavia. Even Protestants fall into national groupings. The largest Protestant denomination is the 50,000-member Slovak Lutheran Church. The second-largest denomination, the Reformed Church, is predominantly Hungarian. Evangelicals, a tiny group numbering in the tens of thousands, are largely clustered in the north, along the border with Hungary.
Over the years, the older mainline Protestant churches, tied to the fortunes of the ethnic groups they serve, have been losing members as the groups suffer heavy losses due to emigration. Nominalism is also a factor. Only 10 percent of church members attend the Slovak Lutheran Church, says Bishop Andrej Beredi. It is difficult to find candidates willing to train for the pastorate; many churches are without pastors.
Protestant congregations are small, usually averaging 30 to 50 members, says Martin Hovan, superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Yugoslavia. Caught in the grip of materialism, young people are losing their spiritual vitality, he warns.
Evangelical churches have largely stayed even or recorded some growth, says Peter Kuzmic, director of Evangelical Theological College in Osijek.
Last year, the Baptist college, the oldest Protestant school in Yugoslavia, was closed for four years on a trial basis. No new students were coming, says Aleksandar Birvis, pastor of First Baptist Church of Belgrade. He cites indifference, lack of missionary zeal, and immigration of national minorities as key reasons for the denomination’s failure to grow.
The Protestant church is largely unprepared, it seems, to take advantage of new opportunities and privileges afforded it by a socialist society in crisis and a government that is loosening restrictions.
"We don’t have enough strength," says Bishop Beredi. "We are a very small number of people." Superintendent Hovan also bemoans the size of the church, but suggests Christians can accomplish much if they are willing to work together.
Despite the size and historic weakness of the church, there is hope for the future of Christianity in Yugoslavia, says Kuzmic. "Evangelicals must learn to articulate their faith effectively in the context of contemporary socialist society," he says. "Socialist society is experiencing a serious crisis. There is a vacuum here which needs to be filled with the gospel of Jesus Christ."
In Yugoslavia today, there are new challenges and opportunities for the church. What is needed now, many church leaders say, is a renewed church.
In the Seychelles, a sleeping giant stirs
"We listen to your sermon; that is one way you can help us," a Seychelles government official told the island nation’s Anglican bishop. It was an amazing statement, coming as it did from an official of the country’s one-party socialist government. Government officials in the tiny country off the coast of East Africa are not given to listening to just anyone.
In fact, they have managed to silence nearly all opposition since a 1977 coup brought President France-Albert Rene to power. Political opponents were imprisoned, forced to flee the country, or simply disappeared. From the first, the church spoke out against human rights abuses, and amazingly, was tolerated-even, some say, encouraged.
"The church is free to express its opinion," says Anglican priest Wavell Ramkalawan. "As a priest, I can stand up and address the issue of human rights. Other people are afraid to speak out; they could lose their jobs."
Perhaps it is not suprising that in a country where some 99 percent of the population are baptized church members the church is as a powerful and respected force.
Some 90 percent of Seychellois are Roman Catholics. About 5 percent are Anglicans. Less than 1 percent are evangelical Christians, according to Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World. Despite their respect for the church, most Seychellois are nominal Christians. Perhaps 30 to 40 percent are committed to their faith, says Wavell Ramkalawan, an Anglican priest.
Neverthless, the ranks of the committed are growing, he says. "Every day you meet new people who are ready to make commitments." He notes people in their 30s are turning to the church, largely, he believes, because of the political situation of the country. They come looking for help and encouragement, and "this gives us an opportunity to re-evangelize them."
One group that is not yet looking for help is young people, who tend to see the church as hostile to their interests, says Ramkalawan. Promiscuity is rampant in the Seychelles, and the church confronts the issue head-on, alienating those who do not wish to change.
Nevertheless, Ramkalawan sees the future of the church as bright. "The church in the Seychelles is like a sleeping giant," he says. "We have strength and power, but we are just there. But I believe the church in the future will be alive. We have the potential now to wake up and get people committed."
The Islamic heartland-trouble brews along the edges
"I don’t think there is any country where there are a majority of Muslims where there will be peace until the country has Shariah (system of Islamic law)." Samuel Fehr is director of the Evangelische Karmel Mission of West Germany. He is not surprised by the flareup of violence in a variety of republics where Muslims live under the rule of secular governments.
"Muslims must have Shariah," says Fehr. "In any country there will be trouble until they have it."
Increasingly, this is becoming apparent as pressure to institute Shariah mounts in countries like Nigeria, where Muslims are a majority in northern states. In Nigeria, says Fehr, Christians are quietly preparing for the persecution they believe lies ahead as a very vocal-and sometimes violent-Muslim community pushes for Islamization.
The burned-finger delicacy with which the Nigerian government deals with the "hot potato" of Muslim demands is born of a well-founded fear of violent confrontation. In other spots on the rim of the Islamic heartland where Muslims encounter the non-Muslim world violent conflicts rage.
In Azerbaijan and Tadzhikistan in the Soviet Union, in Kosovo in Yugoslavia, in Xinjiang Uygur in China, in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza in the Middle East, and in Kashmir in India, Muslims in non-Muslim societies have been demanding the right to self-determination. Although in each country the history and context of the conflict differs, the bottom line is the same, even in communities where Muslim religious practice is superficial. Islam-and ultimately Shariah-defines and binds together the community, bestowing an identity and sense of purpose.
In such a seamless Muslim culture, the mere existence of non-Muslims-and Christians in particular-may be seen as a threat to be extinguished by violence, if necessary. The Christian response, naturally, has been to flee, leaving regions that once had only a bare Muslim majority, or even a minority, in the hands of a new Muslim majority.
Although noting the seemingly valid reasons for abandoning their violence-infested communities, Fehr bemoans the flight of Christians from Muslim areas. "When Christians leave," he says, "their testimony leaves with them."
In some Muslim enclaves, however, Christians have been making small inroads. In Kashmir, India’s only Muslim state, scores of people have been killed in rioting this year. Daily demonstrations have drawn up to 400,000 people in the summer capital of Srinagar. Over the last few years, the gospel has been making an impact, says Fehr, whose organization has been working there for a number of years. Now, there are small gatherings of 10 to 20 people. Last year, just before the violence began, Christians gave out about 1 million tracts and gospels.
"Our attitude must be that Jesus has all power in heaven and earth," says Fehr. "We should continue to give Muslims a testimony. We must be ready to witness."
Worldwide democracy movement strikes Nepal’s Hindu kingdom
On Easter Sunday, several hundred Nepali Christians marched through central Kathmandu carrying signs with the Easter message-one sign called for religious freedom. Some Christians stopped near the royal palace to sing and pray. Their witness reflects a new sense of freedom amid dramatic political changes. In April, following two months of anti-government protests, the Hindu kingdom’s absolute monarch, Birendra, announced the dismantling of the old partyless panchayat system and pledged to re-establish multiparty politics. For Christians, the prospect of religious freedom follows two years of severe repression of non-Hindu religions by the government.
Hindu leaders around the world have been eager to protect the purity of the world’s only Hindu kingdom. They view with alarm the explosive growth of the church from a handful of believers 30 years ago to perhaps 75,000 today, and have encouraged Nepal to put a stop to the uncontrolled growth. Rumor has it that Queen Aishwarya had stepped in and personally declared war on Christians, said Operation Mobilization missionary David McBride, who spent four months in a Nepalese prison at the end of 1988 and beginning of 1989.
According to Operation Mobilization, more Christians were arrested, sentenced, or jailed in 1989 than in any previous year. A January O.M. report stated that five Christians were serving sentences in prison; 25 were in jail with cases pending against them, and 143 were free on bail.
Perhaps the best known prisoner is Charles Mendies, director of David Evangelistic Outreach, who in November began to serve a six-year sentence for "causing a disturbance to the Hindu religion." According to reports received from prison, a small church is already being formed there. Speaking to News Network International from Nepal Central Prison, Mendies said, "I am happy to serve all my six years, because the harvest is as great inside as it is outside."
But religious prisoners such as Mendies may soon be released, says a Nepalese Christian who is active in the main opposition group, the Congress Party. "It may take some time for those who already have a court verdict, but others may be free very soon," he said.
Prospects for human rights and religious freedom are hopeful, says United Mission to Nepal director Edgar Metzler. In May, interim government leaders told a gathering of 2,000 Christians that provisions for human rights and religious liberty will be included in the new constitution. The public rally, which would have been illegal just a few weeks before, was a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Nepal Christian Fellowship.
At the rally, Congress Party leader Ganesh Man Singh commended the Christians for their contributions throughout Nepal’s history. But Metzler notes that "the social stigma on Christians as following a foreign religion will probably remain for a long time."
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