THE CHALLENGE OF EASTERN EUROPE
The Director of Frontline Fellowship recently returned from an extensive 9 nation, 2½ month speaking tour which involved:
36 flights and 90 speaking engagements. It also involved driving 4 300km by car and 10 border crossings in Eastern Europe alone. In this report Peter Hammond describes some of the important developments which he observed and lessons to be learnt from the previous Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow...", our team sang the doxology as we drove away from the border post entering Albania. Once again we had witnessed the Lord’s gracious answers to prayer in enabling us to pass by a notoriously difficult border post with a minimum of complications and delay.
At once we began to see literally hundreds of concrete pill boxes and military bunkers pock-marking the hillsides. At first it was amusing to see such excessive communist paranoia, especially when we saw fields and hillsides covered with tens of thousands of concrete poles with metal spikes on top. We were told that these spiked poles were meant to impale invading parachutists!
As we continued to see multiplied thousands of pill boxes, bunkers and fields of anti-para spikes we were astounded and somewhat disgusted at the unnecessary waste of resources that this represented. Most Albanians live in grossly overcrowded and inadequate apartments. The concrete squandered on these extravagant “defences” could have provided housing for all Albanians.
The people of Albania suffered under the Turks for 450 years and under Stalinist communism for 45 years. The Socialist regime of Enver Hoxha isolated itself from the rest of the world and even from God!
In 1967 dictator Enver Hoxha declared Albania to be the first Atheist state in the world. He dramatised this by the public execution of a Priest. All churches were closed. One was turned into the Cuban embassy, another became a restaurant, and so on. The only religious expressions allowed were the cult of worshipping Enver Hoxha and an overwhelming obsession with football! Enver Hoxha, in his own words, “banished God from Albania”. Hoxha also erased all references to the King of the Albanians from the National Museum.
Ergys Sako described how, from 1970 to 1982 his uncle was jailed for 12 years for whispering, “God will help you” to a discouraged friend. His words were overheard by an informer and he was arrested and imprisoned.
Buyer Muthagi told of how one of his relatives had been jailed for 15 years because he had dared to wrap a loaf of bread in an old newspaper - a newspaper which contained a picture of Hoxha! Everyone in the poor man’s family were then required to disown him, including his wife who had to divorce him.
On another occasion every Albanian with a foreign wife or husband was required to divorce and denounce their partner as a foreign spy. They were then imprisoned and later expelled from the country. Like every other dictator, Enver Hoxha hated cats. But Hoxha went even further and banned all cats and dogs from the capital city of Tirana!
The communist government of Albania was regarded as the most harsh and ruthless in Europe. Their rigorous enforcement of atheism and “scientific socialism” turned Albania into the poorest and most forgotten country in Europe.
Our local hosts showed us where the statues of Lenin, Stalin and Hoxha had been. Large crowds attacked these hated symbols of oppression in March 1992, toppled them over and smashed them.
We were staggered at the abject poverty and degradation that socialism had reduced the precious people of Albania to. The hospitals were overcrowded and under-equipped. We saw flies and cockroaches even in Intensive Care. The doctors were making a determined and heroic effort with hopelessly inadequate facilities. But most of the nurses were sitting idly around while patients were cared for by their relatives. Everyone seemed to be smoking and there were many more unauthorised visitors and relatives crowding the smoke filled hallways and wards than patients. Surveying the debris and dirt that littered the floors, the broken equipment and a rusty scalpel in the operating room, I could hardly believe that we were in a major hospital in the capital city.
During our visit to the Ministry of Health we learnt that the breakdown of urban water supplies and sewerage systems could lead to outbreaks of water borne epidemics (only 40% of the urban population have access to an indoor water supply). As it was, parasitic infections were widespread in children, there were many cases of gastroenteritis, hepatitis and some cases of typhoid. In 1990, 20% of the children were found to be malnourished. Almost 50% of maternal deaths were due to (legal) abortions.
Most midwives lacked blood pressure meters. Maternity wards in the hospitals lacked screens for privacy, sheets for the beds or even running water in the rooms. Caesarean sections were used in over 17% of hospital deliveries, apparently because doctors lacked ultrasound equipment to assess the babies’ development. There were also no disposable syringes in the country. All in all it presented a compelling argument against socialised medicine.
The Blood Of The Martyrs
The Bible tells us that Paul preached to the lllyrians (the ancient Albanians) with a great display of the Spirit’s power (Rom 15:19). We visited the archaeological excavations at the amphitheatre in the coastal city of Durres where Titus was martyred. Before the communist revolution in 1945 the population was 70% Muslim, 20% Orthodox and 10% Catholic.
According to the official statistics presented to us by the Albanian government, Albania has a population of 3% million inhabitants; 74% of the population state that they have no religion, 21% are Muslims and 5% are Christians (mostly Orthodox and Catholic with few Protestants).
The Muslim sect in Albania (the Bektashivyo) have a lot of occultic practices. Similarly the Orthodox and Catholics are riddled with superstitions. The Albanian culture has incorporated much worship of the sun, Mother Goddess, the moon, earth figures, witchcraft, the evil eye, the shtriga, blood feuds and human sacrifice. These syncretistic practices have been incorporated into the local Muslim and "Christian" religious beliefs. Many Christians actually trust in crosses, icons and other symbols without knowing that they can have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the wake of the apparent collapse of communism in Albania, a spiritual vacuum exists. The Albanians are fascinated by the, until recently, “forbidden fruit” of religion. There is an obsession with anything supernatural such as magic, UFO’s, or fortune telling.
One Albanian student, Altin Raxhmi, declared that in the last six months he had been “an existentialist, a Muslim, a Bahai, a Freudian and now I want to be a Christian “.
One missionary told of how he had been carrying a box of New Testaments to a nearby evangelistic crusade. Suddenly a mob of 50 young men surrounded him. The crowd swelled to about 300, each jostling to obtain a coveted copy of the Bible. Pandemonium erupted as the box was torn apart. Fighting broke out as many hands grappled for the precious books. Curses rent the air as some snatched 6 or 7 copies, only to have them taken away by others! The hunger for truth and the desperation of a people robbed of all spiritual life for decades was heart-rending.
At the time of our visit the door was wide open for evangelism (but a law was placed before parliament which, if passed, would have effectively prohibited all Protestant church and missionary activity. It was shelved only after vigorous protest.) The Albanian people love to converse with foreigners and it was very easy to attract a crowd by simply beginning to discuss spiritual matters.
But the Albanians are a hurting people with a very distorted view of God. They generally see God as unreachable and unconcerned. In their minds, a relationship with God means being religious. They also have little concept of sin and often fail to understand the meaning of forgiveness. They see themselves as innocent people who have been unjustly treated and as a result feel that they are owed something. The idea that they have sinned is foreign to them.
Despite all they have suffered, the Albanian people are some of the most hospitable and friendly people I have ever met. They place a strong emphasis on loyalty and the value of relationships. However, there were some important differences in their culture for us to adapt to. In conversation it is unacceptable to disagree with what the other person is saying. Instead, one can say: “I understand what you are saying” and then present your own point of view.
In the same way, an Albanian may seem to agree with you so as not to cause offense. Many may make a public commitment to Christ out of politeness, or to please you. To make things more confusing, Albanians nod their heads up and down for “no”, and shake their heads from side to side for “yes”! Then, to really complicate matters, some Albanians have learnt to follow our way!
The great challenge of Albania is that here we have a fresh opportunity to build a truly Bible based church - free from the divisions and distortions of the West. There are no denominations and no traditions. In fact they don’t even understand our religious jargon and cliche’s.
Some of the missionaries who have responded to the challenge are being very sensitive to the needs of the people and to the teachings of the Bible. At great personal sacrifice these servants of Christ are carefully laying the foundations for a Biblical church.
Others however have blundered in with all the worst of the West. Should their loud and superficial message and materialistic methods predominate, then Albania would have just exchanged the curse of communism for the compromise of the West.
A Sinful Silence
At a symposium in Tirana, the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Gunnar Staalsett, asked his Albanian audience for forgiveness “for having contributed to the silence in which... you suffered.” He confessed that those aware of the atrocities had not expressed their concern for those passing through the tribulations of socialism. The vision of a classless society, he said had “turned into a nightmare of fear and betrayal".
The LWF - which represents 55 million Lutherans worldwide - had been criticised for remaining silent about ongoing injustices in socialist countries whilst loudly denouncing any alleged injustice in the Western nations.
Klaus Wilkens of the German Lutheran Church (EKD) declared that it was urgently necessary that Christians deal with those church leaders who had ignored human rights violations or had sought to justify them. This had already been the case when the World Council of Churches and its members had remained silent about the vicious persecution by Romanian dictator Ceausescu and the Namibian terrorist movement SWAPO. Now the WCC was similarly supporting the Serbian aggressors in Yugoslavia.
Throughout what used to be Yugoslavia 1 300 000 have been driven from their homes and in Croatia alone there are 540 000 refugees. 75% of former Yugoslavia is in the official war zone and the carnage and destruction is increasing. The Protestants (who are only 148 000 out of the total population of 24 million) are desperately trying to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.
The Evangelical Alliance in Croatia has disclosed that: over 300 churches have been destroyed, 100 schools demolished, 5 000 people have been killed, 6 000 are recorded as missing, over 3 100 are in Serbian Concentration Camps and a further 20 000 have been injured by the Serbian communists. The total estimated direct damage was estimated at $21 billion, in Croatia alone.
In an official statement published in Zagreb the Evangelical Alliance declared that: “Had the Western world taken the stance it is now taking against the communists in Belgrade earlier, the war could have been stopped at the very beginning.”
As we drove into the newly independent state of Macedonia we noticed the new red flag with the sun emblem of Alexander the Great emblazoned on it. We also observed a country under blockade from the European Community. Objecting to Macedonia having the same name as a Greek province, Greece had blocked EC recognition of the newly independent country and closed its border with Macedonia. As a result petrol was very scarce and few cars were seen on the roads.
Before the Serbian army of Yugoslavia left Macedonia it stole over $30 billion worth of machinery and equipment. Macedonia is now legally an independent multi-party state. The communists lost the first election yet somehow through deceit and intrigue every government position remains in the same communist hands. The local citizens were somewhat bewildered that the very people they had just voted out of power could still control everything.
As in the rest of Eastern Europe the church leaders complained that they were loosing many of their best young people and families to emigration. Drawn by the promise of wealth and opportunities in America or Germany many hundreds of thousands are leaving their home countries and heading West.
Some church leaders complained that the only available Bible in Macedonia was a recent publication which was translated by an “unregenerate, unspiritual man” who used an unreliable 19th century Russian translation as his main source. They described the translation as “a deceptive, hard to understand and mostly incorrect translation”, and “a great disgrace to the Bible Society”, which they said had never consulted with the local Protestants in Macedonia concerning the Project. This Macedonian Bible even included the unBiblical Apocraphal books. By way of explanation one pastor pointed out that the leader of the Yugoslavian Bible Society, in Belgrade, was a secular man - a communist party appointee! Fortunately we also met a well qualified pastor who was independently occupied with a new translation.
Rev. Bill Bathman who has been a missionary to Eastern Europe for 31 years observed that the Macedonian call recorded in Acts 16:9 still needs to be heeded today: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
The economic devastation caused by socialism in Bulgaria was painfully obvious as we drove past hundreds of shoddy, uncompleted blocks of flats (apartments), and lifeless inactive factories.
During the previous 5 years, over 200 000 Bulgarians had escaped or emigrated from Bulgaria. Local church leaders told us that the main problems they face include: the continual loss of young people pouring out of the country for better opportunities in the West and the invasion of superficial Western “evangelists".
“We have been blessed with revival in Bulgaria”, related one pastor, “But this is being threatened by the materialism and emotionalism of the West. We were also told that almost all of the government leaders in Bulgaria were the same old communists who had persecuted the church for the past decades. And Article 13 of the Bulgarian Constitution declares that the Orthodox church has priority and refuses similar recognition for Protestants.
Nevertheless, evangelical Christians rejoiced at the unprecedented evangelistic opportunities they now have to present the Gospel on radio and television. And the Ministry of Education had just approved the distribution of a copy of a children’s Bible “The Way to Life” and “Leading Little Ones to God” to every school child in Bulgaria!
It was a special joy to be back in Romania, to enjoy fellowship and worship with precious Christian friends and present lectures at the new Christian University in Oradea.
Yet the continuing legacies of the communist oppression of Ceausescu were evident everywhere: a prevailing sadness, pessimism and fatalistic outlook. Many things don’t work. The old communist mentality is still heard in the phrase “nu se poate” (it can’t be done). Delays, frustrations and complications are the way of life in Romania, and it takes far too long for anything to be done. This may explain why most Western investment has rather gone to Hungary, Czecho and Poland. Bribery and corruption are still flourishing and seem to be essential to get anything done.
While Romania looks modern, clean and wealthy compared to Albania, almost everything looks disorganised, unkept, shabby, run-down, dirty and polluted. Environmentalists who have so vigorously attacked Western governments for industrial pollution and wastage of natural resources, should travel across any socialist country in Eastern Europe. The “greens” will find that the environmental destruction caused by their “red” friends makes any pollution in the West pale in comparison.
Even more seriously there has been surprisingly little change in the political situation in Romania. The communist officials responsible for decades of mass murder, concentration camps and vicious persecution are generally still in power. Almost no attempt has been made to bring those responsible for heinous atrocities to justice. The government, the secret police, the television and the military are still firmly in the hands of the old communists. While unprecedented freedoms of movement and speech are being allowed, some people are still being watched, threatened and beaten. Mail is still being opened and telephone conversations are still being listened to by the secret police. And only 4% of businesses have so far been privatised in Romania.
The present preoccupation seems to be how to get rich quick rather than how to rebuild the country and lay foundations for true freedom. Along with this materialism the worst of the West has flooded in, including trash music, scandal rags and pornography.
Many Romanians believed that Romania had been betrayed by foreign governments. There was some discussion about how Washington, London and Moscow had handed Romania over to communism in 1945 at the Yalta Conference. And now Washington, Brussels and Moscow had predetermined Romania’s place in the New World Order at the 1989 Malta Conference. Some believed that Romania was being deliberately turned into an economic colony of Western bankers and corporations. Many wanted their King to be allowed to return, and unify the country.
There was also concern over the war in Moldova (which was the part of Romania stolen by the Soviet Union since 1945) that it may escalate into a Yugoslav type civil war.
On another level there was a widespread frustration with the growing number of insensitive and superficial preachers from the West. These visitors often come with no prior research or experience and arrogantly presume to teach the Romanians. I found that the Romanians clearly distinguished between pre-1990 missionaries who at great risk sacrificed to help the persecuted church and post-1990 “religious tourists".
Often I received enthusiastic responses to the Reformation lectures: “This is the teaching we need!” declared the pastor. “We are tired of Westerners telling us how to be saved. We want to know how to transform our country for Christ!”
The proliferation of new road side stalls, the increase in free enterprise and the ease with which we passed through their previously time consuming border posts showed some of the dramatic changes that have taken place in Hungary. Yet vast qualities of Soviet/Russian troops remain in Hungary, and in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany and Poland, and Lithuania, and Latvia and Estonia.
I was shocked to see a street vendor selling communist party badges, red stars with the hammer and sickle emblem and pictures of Soviet dictators. “Why are you selling these symbols of evil? The Soviets crushed Budapest with their tanks”, I protested. “But everything is now free,” was his answer. “Well the hammer and sickle does not signify freedom” was my reply.
This episode crystallized a growing concern in my heart and mind:
Is Communism Really Dead?
Could you imagine anyone openly selling Nazi symbols in Berlin in 1948? Yet communist badges and publications are being openly flaunted and sold throughout Europe.
Would National Socialism (Nazism) have been declared dead while ex-Nazi’s held every important position of power throughout half of Europe? Yet today we are expected to believe that International Socialism (communism) is dead while the same officials remain in power in most of Eastern Europe. (When did you ever hear of an ex-Nazi in power anywhere?)
Of course those who declare that communism is dead ignore the obvious fact that 1 200 Million people live under communist tyranny in Red China. And of course millions more suffer under dictatorships in North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Serbia and other communist regimes.
Could you imagine the Gestapo still in power in 1948? Yet the same KGB is still in control today. Do you think it would have been reasonable for the German Olympic teams to have worn swastika symbols on their uniforms at the London Olympics of 1948? Yet the Russian/Commonwealth/ Team wore the communist hammer and sickle on their uniforms during the Barcelona Olympics of 1992.
Would the Second World War have been declared over if German troops still occupied Norway, Belgium, Holland, France, etc? Yet the Cold War is declared won while Russian troops continue to occupy Poland, Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, and other supposedly independent states.
There has been no equivalent of the Nurnburg Trials for those communists who authorised the laying of millions of landmines and booby trapped toys in Afghanistan. The same journalists and film producers who remind us that we must “never forget” the holocaust and “never again” allow National Socialism to rise, seem strangely sympathetic to the socialist perpetrators of the 70 year holocaust in Russia and decades of oppression in Eastern Europe and China.
Clearly socialism has proved to be an economic, social and moral disaster of epic proportions. Certainly the people of Eastern Europe have rejected socialism. But lacking full and free information and education, and lacking the necessary weapons and experience they have so far been incapable of truly winning full freedom. The lessons of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries indicate that Eastern Europe is not going to win true and lasting freedom without the generations of revival and reformation, and an armed citizenry that established “Lex Rex” (constitutional rule) in Germany, England and the United States. And the foundations we need to be laying for revival and reformation began with prayer, evangelism, repentance and Bible teaching.
“Be very careful then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” Ephesians 5:15-17
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