Samuil Petrovski speaks about the vitality of churches, the recent presidential election, and what Serbia learnt about reconciliation after the 90s war.
Bordering with eight other countries, Serbia is, with over 8.5 million people, the second state in the Balkan region in terms of population. Evangelical Christians there continue to be a faith minority in a historically Orthodox nation, but their presence is increasingly visible.
Evangelical Focus asked evangelical leader Samuil Petrovski about the present and future of the church, just days after the political elections of 3 April.
Aleksandar Vučić won a second term as President of Serbia with a large support of around 60% of the vote. The popular politician became Prime Minister in 2014 and later President of the republic in 2017.
Samuil Petrovski is President of the Serbian Evangelical Alliance and Secretary General of EUS (the student movement IFES in Serbia).
Question. Vučić clearly won the Presidential election, and his party the parliamentary election. How do you describe him and his ideology? Why is he so popular?
Answer. I met Vučić a few times, even before he became the President. We gave him a Bible and we prayed with him. In September 2017, he allowed Christian evangelist Nick Vujicic to speak at a Serbian government session with the Prime Minister and all other government ministers. I led the session, we gave every minister a Gospel of John and Vujicic clearly shared the message of the gospel. It was a very unique event with all the ministers present for almost two hours. It was very encouraging.
People trust Vučić a lot, he is more popular than his own political party. In the last ten years he helped build better infrastructures, logistics, new buildings… The economy is a bit better than before. Whether you support him or not, people live better now than before. He managed to bring to Serbia many investors: from the US, Germany, and other Western countries, and also from China or South Korea.
He has helped the stability in the region. North Macedonia, Albania and Serbia have signed a kind of ‘mini-Schengen area’ which allows to travel more easily and makes working permits very accessible.
After 16 years in the opposition, he is now seen as a factor of stability, a serious politician. Ideologically, he is in the centre, and like most other politicians in the region, a populist. In one sense, he is for the nation, for the family and for traditional values. On the other side, he is pro-European, and his government has been negotiating for years to join the EU.
As an evangelical, of course there are many things in society that I would like to see changed (like corruption), but I have to say that Vucic is very good in the area of religious freedom. During his time, the biggest number of evangelical churches have registered in the country as independent churches. Most churches had the freedom to practice their ministries and there were no statements against non-Orthodox faith groups from him.
[photo_footer]In September 2017, evangelist Nick Vujicic (centre, white shirt) spoke to the Serbian government.
Q. How has the war in Ukraine affected the thinking in Serbia? Is there fear? Or has the traditional relationship with Russia in the past given people a different perception than in the rest of Europe?
Answer. There are many feelings and reflections here. This is not the first war in Europe after World War II. In 1999, for instance, Serbia was under the bombing NATO for 78 days because of the Kosovo crisis. I was a student then, but I remember well because a missile hit a power central just 5 minutes after I had been on that spot, in a bus stop. So, we can sympathise with the people of Ukraine because we also suffered an attack, although different, of course. Back then, the NATO operation was unfortunately called ‘Merciful Angel’ and around 2,000 people died, hospitals and bridges among other infrastructures were destroyed. So, we have sympathy, a heart and big love for the Ukrainian people, we were under the bombings of planes and missiles here as well.
Then, there is the case of Kosovo, which is important for Serbians. Some countries in Europe did not recognise its independence. And Ukraine neither, so that led to a good relationship with them. In the 1999 NATO bombings, the Ukrainian government supported us and sent a lot of help.
On the other side, Serbian people have traditional ties with the Russian people because of the shared Orthodox faith. They’ve had a special relationship in the past, and many Russians have come to live here. Some groups of people here are trying to defend why Russia went into the war, although a vast majority of people are against the Russian aggressions in Ukraine. There were some small demonstrations in favour of Russia, and much larger demonstrations in favour of the Ukrainian people. Unfortunately, the media reported mostly on the first ones, to portray Serbia as pro-Russian, which is not true.
Q. Are refugees from Ukraine arriving to Serbia? If so, how are they being received?
A. Serbia has a heart for Ukrainian refugees. Keep in mind that between 1991 and 1999, Serbia received 300,000 refugees from Croatia and a few hundred thousand from Bosnia and from Kosovo as well. Everyone knows a refugee from the 90’s here and, actually, my wife is one of those former refugees: she left with a bag from Sarajevo a few days before the war started there.
And as a lot of European Union countries rejected Syrian, Afghan and Iranian refugees, in Serbia we received many, and lately from other countries such as Burundi. We’re very open to show love, hospitality and welcome to refugees.
We are receiving refugees from Ukraine, but also migrants from Russia. There is a big number of Russian evangelical Christians who are coming to Serbia. Some are leaving from the potential crisis, some have come because the international companies they work for have moved here recently, others decided to move because of their religious freedom in the future is not clear.
Most refugees who come here are seeking to go to other countries such as the UK. Churches are helping as much as they can. As I said, because of our own past, we have a soft heart for refugees.
Q. What is the position of Serbia in the Ukraine war?
A. Serbia is very neutral at the moment in this crisis. On one side, Serbia is against Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. On the other side, Serbia is not willing to sanction Russia. Of course, there are traditional and economic reasons, for instance, like other European countries we very much depend on the Russian gas. At the United Nations Assembly, Serbia voted for the resolution condemning the Russian aggression but abstained in the vote about expelling Russia out from the UN Security Council.
I think this neutrality is the best position right now, so we can allow Russians who want to come here to arrive, but at the same time we welcome Ukrainian refugees. As a nation, we’ve suffered a lot in the 90s from different wars, and we surely want to keep a certain distance.
By the way, the European bureaucracy, I think, should be faster in the process of making our countries members. People in Brussels should see that integrating the Balkan countries in the EU would be a win-win situation for all.
[photo_footer]Serbian evangelicals have been organising many open events.
Q. What are the issues Christians in Serbia are most interested in?
A. Christians in Serbia are thinking how we can reach people for the gospel. As in every crisis, there are a lot of questions, there is fear about the future. We are free and eager to organise evangelistic events and we as ministries want to point the people of Serbia to the source of hope which is Jesus Christ.
Evangelical Churches are doing a lot of good things as they try to work in pro-life initiatives, ecological issues, human trafficking, mental health of young people, ethical issues such as corruption, Roma people, vulnerable groups such as drug addicts. Christians in Serbia are open to enter the public square to address these issues from a biblical point of view.
Specifically, as IFES Serbia (EUS) we will have two mission weeks in May, and we do small group Bible studies, we use Alpha Course, Christianity Explored. In Easter we will have events to speak about the resurrection of Jesus. We publish books in Serbian from authors like C.S. Lewis, Roland Werner, John Lennox… And we are wanting to open the first Christian bookshop in the country ever. It would be a coffee shop as well, a place where people in Belgrade can buy Bibles and Christian books but also meet for other activities.
Christians are now seen with better eyes and respected by the Serbian country, which was not that much the case in the past.
Q. What is something specific that evangelical churches can offer to the Serbian society?
A. As Serbian evangelical Christians we are very interested in modelling a good message of peace and reconciliation. For instance, the student ministry in Serbia and in Albania has a very good relationship and partnership. As leaders, we are friends based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and have invited each other to speak at the other’s national conferences. As Christians we have been able to model true reconciliation and peace building. Now the Presidents of our countries have also good relationships.
In the last decade we also had much more presence in the media, and we have been able to speak about issues such as marriage, science, and other issues. This is a very good sign.
As evangelical Christians, we have a common denominator, and perhaps in the future we can model this for Russian and Ukrainian Christians. I think this is very important now. In this sense, I’m asking your readership to not put things black and white. We have brothers in sisters in Russia who are talking, who are writing, who are even demonstrating. We need to pray for them, it is not easy. And also we have to pray for brothers and sisters in Ukraine who have suffered, lost family. We need to pray against the war. Christian unity needs to be a priority in these times. Unfortunately, in our experience in the 90s, often discussing political questions brought division among evangelical Christians.
The global media want to put Serbia, Hungary, Turkey and other countries who are neutral in some boxes, but we as Christians need to have another perspective. We need to cry with those who are crying. We need to explain why we think this is an opportunity to serve and share the gospel effectively, being messengers of hope.
Q. How do you see the future of Serbia? And howe can Christians in other countries pray for you?
A. We are very encouraged in Serbia. We see a lot of new believers, baptisms… But we pray for more. And we need more Christian workers here in Serbia. We need more missionaries that are working directly with people. This is our calling: if somebody has a heart for us and wants to live here, Serbia is now a good place for mission work.
Churches are working in all areas of the country. We are praying that God will use us more and more and bless us with human and financial resources to accomplish our ministry. We are working on raising a new generation of leaders, teaching how they can develop new disciples of Jesus Christ.
Evangelical churches in Serbia are earning credibility by serving people in need. By the acts of love of many evangelical organisations, they are earning credibility to speak the gospel. People in Serbia are hungry for God, they are searching for the meaning of life. We are in a time in which we have a great opportunity to preach and to live the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Please pray for Serbia. Only faith in Jesus Christ can transform lives and give us security for eternity.
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