Archive | February, 2014

TO HEAL THE WOUNDS OF BOSNIA

26 Feb

IMG_1019Visitors roaming through the Bosnia-Herzegovina countryside are struck by stunning mountain vistas, rushing rivers and lush green valleys dotted with neat houses, gardens and haystacks. But the wounds of war are also visible: buildings reduced to ruins or pitted with bullets, the occasional skull-and-crossbones sign warning of unexploded landmines, and the disturbing frequency of cemeteries. Gravestones are instantly identifiable as Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox and to passers-by who stop for a closer look, it becomes obvious that the years 1992 to 1995 signaled a tragedy of staggering proportions.

Much of the world has forgotten the killing fields of Bosnia after it followed Slovenia and Croatia’s IMG_1034lead and broke away from Yugoslavia. The explosion of hatred between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim-background Slavs left over 100,000 dead, a third of them women and children. But although the grass has grown over those 15-year-old graves, the hearts of survivors remain deeply scarred.

A house—or country–divided against itself cannot stand. Yet the barriers between ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still very much in evidence. In a land only a third the size of England, Serbs have claimed their own autonomous region. In other towns and cities, Bosnians and Serbs tend to live on their own sides. And the government doesn’t just have one elected president but three—Bosnian, Serb and Croat—each rotating four-month terms through the year.

Meanwhile, the country’s social and economic situation grows increasingly desperate. Factories that closed during the war have not reopened. A 40% unemployment rate—rising in some places to 70%– means the government gets too little tax money to rebuild the infrastructure. Young people see no future and turn to drink and drugs. Pensioners struggle to survive on a pittance. For many residents, wood-burning stoves are the only option for heating homes.

 IMG_1042People are also spiritually impoverished. ‘There’s a definite sense that “my religion is my nationality,”’ explains a Christian worker. ‘The words “Serb” and “Orthodox” are used interchangeably, as are “Croat” and “Catholic,” and “Bosnian” and “Muslim.” Although a person’s religion is part of his birthright, only a few are devout. However, a growing number are being influenced by Muslim missionaries from outside, and the offer of schools, mosques and other gifts donated by wealthy Muslim countries.’

Only about 25 evangelical fellowships exist in Bosnia. When OM International began bringing in humanitarian aid in 1998, church planting became a priority. The first team lived in a 750-year-old Muslim-dominant town in the northwest corner of the country, which has never had an evangelical church. The first locals to follow Jesus were baptized in a local river in 2001, and although several Bosniagirlother men and women gradually came to faith the situation then seemed to stagnate. The team realized that attending formal services in a church building didn’t come naturally to people unfamiliar with Christianity, and decided in 2006 to move from a congregational model to house churches. Since then the number of believers has tripled from ten to thirty, and it has been gratifying to see new Christians using their own initiative to reach out to neighbors. One of the several house groups meets for prayer and Bible reading every day.   

‘Church planting is like growing a flower on a rock,’ observes an OM team member who has persevered in sharing the good news of Jesus for almost ten years. ‘The only thing that has kept me going is knowing it’s God’s will. But I agree with what another worker said: “I have only one candle. I’d rather let it shine where there’s total darkness than where there’s even a little light.”’IMG_1092

Most of Bosnia’s population are still unreached. Only about 1000 among 4.2 million have discovered a future and hope in Jesus Christ. Few new churches are being planted and most residents, like their government, live passively, unwilling to upset the status quo after surviving the horrors of war. Even believers are slow to see the need for a reconciliation ministry. Subtle ethnic tensions still exist within congregations. And it doesn’t help that Baptist and Pentecostal churches rarely work together.

Many outside observers believe that Bosnia-Herzegovina will not make progress either spiritually or economically without reconciliation between its three main ethnic groups. Humanly speaking, such healing seems impossible. Only the God who knows all hearts can penetrate the barricades of bitterness. And He will only exercise that power in answer to the concerted prayers of His people worldwide.IMG_1052

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Awakenings

3 Feb

Zanzibar is an island paradise that could use much more of the Son

ZANZIBARsailboatsTourist brochures call the Zanzibar archipelago the Spice Islands: the ultimate, exotic Indian Ocean experience. For centuries, however, Zanzibar was more of a favored destination for Arab traders than tourists. The islands were a transit hub for ivory, spices and hundreds of thousands of African slaves.

Zanzibar won independence from Britain in 1963 and a year later joined with Tanganyika to create the country of Tanzania. Unfortunately, the relationship has often been uneasy and one party, the Citizen’s United Front (CUF), has made it their goal to reestablish Zanzibar’s independence. Ninety-seven per cent of the 1.3 million population is Muslim and a radical faction within the CUF called Uamsho, meaning “Awakening” in Swahili, also wants to see the islands return to Sharia law and the Muslim way.

Pioneering

Early in 2011, two Christians formerly with Campus Crusade for Christ moved to pioneer new work in the small, 90 by 30 kilometer island in the sun. Theo* and Astrid were already aware of the rise of radical Islam. During their first years several church buildings were damaged or burnt down by extremists, and a Catholic priest was shot dead. This August Zanzibar hit the headlines again when two 18-year-old girls from England, volunteer teachers for underprivileged children, suffered severe burns from an acid attack.

In September the violence came even closer. An elderly Catholic priest was attacked with acid just after leaving an internet café; very near the Christian couple’s apartment. This made the fifth attack since last November, and although no group claimed responsibility, suspicions have focused on Uamsho and external radical influences.

“According to rumors, Uamsho has sent some young men to the Middle East for jihad training,” report the couple. “Intimidation and radical speeches are sowing fear and division. The vast majority of locals want peace, but when they are forced to make a choice they will go with Islam. Many are illiterate and will do whatever their imams tell them to do.

“The government is looking into all these matters,” they add, “and they are making progress. Death threats against pastors are being dealt with successfully and according to reliable sources, perpetrators have been arrested in Tanzania where the attacks been orchestrated.”

The minority church

Local Christians, however, are still scared. “The majority do not have assurance of faith and we sense some strife between different denominations on the island,” says Theo. “Many pastors have not received any training, theological or otherwise. TV Christian channels are their teachers. Leaders are in need of skills to develop projects, coach individuals, plant churches and handle many other aspects of shepherding God’s flock. Believers have a great need for guidance in discovering their talents and potential vocations.”

After immersion in the culture and learning some Swahili, Theo and Astrid started a street church. Because people are so dependent on the tourism industry it is hard for them to find time for discipling believers. Theo has learned to fit his time around their different schedules, regularly visiting new Christians and following up the many contacts he makes with non-believers on the streets. Theo is enthusiastic about this ministry and says, “I can’t wait to see what the Holy Spirit is going to do!”

At the beginning of 2013 Astrid started what she calls the Butterfly Project, teaching Christian and Muslim ladiesZANZIBAR2women basic skills in first aid, nutrition, sewing, knitting and other subjects. The idea is to develop some women who will take over the project and teach others: reaching individuals, then reaching communities. So far this idea has met with great success.

Astrid and Theo ask prayer that a greater hunger for truth will emerge among Zanzibar’s Christians and that they will demonstrate more unity. “Christians need to be able to give the answers that Muslims are seeking for when they ask questions about Jesus. Those who receive revelation and new life must have a safe refuge to go to. Pray that Christians will be ready to receive new believers into their homes.”

Although slaves are no longer bought and sold from this beautiful island, the majority of people know what it is to suffer spiritual bondage. Ask God to bring a different kind of uamsho or awakening: one that will lead to life rather than destruction.ZanzibarBoy

*Names changed