Yugoslavia Research Visit 1980

by Graham Kings

Date added: 17/03/2023

Research Visit to Yugoslavia

23 June to 11 July 1980

Report by Graham Kings to Stella Alexander, Keston College

Author of Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945 (CUP, 1979)

 

I had just completed my two year ordination training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and Post Graduate Diploma in Theology, New Testament, at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Alison, my wife, was working as a Research Assistant to Dr Ramon Gardner, a Psychiatrist at Addenbrookes Hospital.  

This trip was a working holiday during which we hitched a total of about 1000 miles, stayed in camp sites and with a Reformed Pastor and his family. In this report I will give a brief chronicle of our trip, a summary of various interviews and finally an analysis of certain topics.

         A. Chronicle

23 June to 1 July

We flew from London to Beograd on Monday 23 June, hitched to Sarajevo the next day and spent the following day exploring the town. Then, via Mostar to Split (4 days), Zadar (1 day), and Plitvice Lakes (1 day). A young married couple gave us a lift to Zadar; Petar graduated in Psychology at Zagreb University and now teaches that subject at the Zadar section of Split University, and Annja graduated in English and now teaches privately. They took us out for a meal in the evening together with two graduate friends who were staying with them. We had a very deep discussion about Yugoslavia, atheism, and the life of Jesus amongst other subjects.

2 to 3 July Zagreb

Wednesday evening (2nd) we attended Mass at the Cathedral and spoke to the priest afterwards in the sacristy, Nikola Soldo. He remembered Stella with joy and suggested we met Zivko Kustic (editor of Glas Koncila) and Dr Turcinovic (of the Theology Faculty). Thursday morning we had an hour with Dr Branko Lovrec (a Baptist Layman, medical doctor turned publisher/editor), twenty minutes with Zivko Kustic, and in the afternoon forty five minutes with Dr Turcinovic. All three seemed glad to speak to friends of Stella – the Nun who translated our conversation with Kustic would like to hear from her. We spoke to Dr Turcinovic in French, to Dr Lovrec in English and to Mr Kustic through translation.

Thursday evening we met up with Petar’s two friends who had come out for a meal with us in Zadar, and then went on to the Baptist Bible Reading where we met Josip Mikulic who has translated a few American Christian booklets. We were unable to see Peter Kuzmic, the Pentecostal Pastor, because he was out of town.

4 to 8 July Vinkovci [a major railway station half way along the Beograd to Zagreb line]

We stayed with Endre Langh, the Reformed Pastor (my Principal at Ridley Hall knew him when Endre studied for one year at Cambridge – Westminster College). Brother Jo, the local Pentecostal Pastor, and Brother Veljko, the head of that Pentecostal denomination in Yugoslavia, were introduced to us on Saturday afternoon and I was invited by them to preach to their congregation that evening (on Evangelism). Sunday morning I preached to Endre’s congregation (with Endre translating) at Vinkovci (on Evangelism), and at Turdinci (on Evangelism) and again in the afternoon at Turdinci  (on Prayer). In Endre’s house we met many of this friends (several with no church connection): Miroslav (ex Catholic Priest in Turdinci now married), Boro (local electrician who had rewired Endre’s house free of charge), Mirko (ex Police chief of Vinkovci who had to retire early due to a heart attack), Kokaj (director of the Children’s Bank – a special room in the new Vinkovci Bank) to name a few. We also travelled to another village, which has been a Reformed village since the Reformation, to meet the Pastor, Charles, and his family. En route we passed through several villages; one was Catholic, the next Orthodox, the next Reformed etc (we were near the Croatian/Serbian border).

9-11 July Beograd

Wednesday evening (9th) we had a meal at the home of a Baptist layman who works in the U.S. Embassy and then went on with him to the mid-week meeting of the Baptist church. This was led by Dr Alexander Birvis (who gives high-powered Greek, Latin and Hebrew classes on Saturday evening as part of Lay Training); afterwards we met some students  and were encouraged by their faith.

Thursday morning we went into the Patriarchate and met Radomir Rakic (the editor of the Orthodox newspaper Pravoslavlje) after we had asked if we could speak to someone who knew English; we arranged to see him in the afternoon, and had three hours with him then. We also were introduced to Dr Amfilohija Radovic, Professor at the Theology Faculty and ‘star pupil’ of Popovic, and discussed the theological ‘climate’ in England and Yugoslavia. In the early evening we went to the Pentecostal Meeting and I gave ‘greetings’ from England for 15 minutes (in Serbia visiting ‘preachers’ have to have official permission one month in advance). From there we returned to the Patriarchate to visit Bishop Daniel who entertained us with Plum Brandy, a lesson in Iconography (when he learned we had been in a Reformed Church), and many other details of the Orthodox faith.

Friday we flew back to London.

        B. Interviews 

Dr Branko Lovrec – Baptist publisher, editor and owner of a bookshop.

Editor of Glas Evandelja (circulation of about 4,500); some part time teaching at the Baptist seminary at Novi Sad; leader of the Baptist youth camps on an island near Zadar in the summer, which are attended by about 750 young people altogether each year. I had the impression of a man with a realistic vision for the future, zealous for the conversion and training of young people and sound in business sense. He was one of the organisers of the Novi Sad Pastors’ Conference held on the weekend after Easter 1980 where John Stott (an Evangelical Anglican) gave a series of Bible Readings, (this was the first Protestant interdenominational pastors’ conference ever to be held in Yugoslavia). He had just returned from an international consultation on Evangelism held at Pattaya in Thailand (Michael Bourdeaux also attended this).

The Tito telegram from the Baptist church had been very sincere and was printed in Glas Evandelja. He personally thought a lot of Tito and considered that Patriotism (as opposed to Nationalism) was important to encourage among young Christians. He would be ready to fight for the freedom that they have. His family have been in Zagreb for six generations now and he would like his children to stay there. He wants to show people that if you are a Croatian you are not necessarily a Catholic. The Catholic bookshop sells some of his children’s books but he does not sell any of their literature (because they are usually too heavy intellectually). He did not know Nikola Soldo (nor did Nikola know him) but he does know well one of the translators of the new Catholic New Testament. The Pentecostals are currently working on a new translation of the Living Bible. The church/state situation has been easier since 1972.

Near to the bookshop there is a ‘coffee bar’ run by the church with evangelistic and apologetic literature on show; this seems to be quite popular with the students. He has a link with Lion Publishing in England and also with Inter-Varsity Press. There have been no problems from the State regarding his bookshop, which is on the corner of one of the main government squares, and close to the Presidential palace.

He has read some Liberation Theology and takes Themelios (an evangelical theological journal). The Nazarenes are dropping in numbers due to their strict rules about involvement in ‘the world’ – yet there are quite a few Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Zivko Kustic – editor of Glas Koncila, Eastern Catholic Priest.

A hardworking, shrewd man. Greetings to Stella. The paper has a circulation of 110,000 which does up to 150,000 at feast days. Out of 17 years publishing, the paper has only been impounded by the police four or five times. The church/state situation has not really changed since 1972, and is not likely to in the near future. Freedom for believers is propaganda. There are many believers in the Communist Party – priests take round masses to them at night in secret.

The position of believing teachers is very difficult.

Pope John Paul II is seen as very conservative in his Catholicism and anti-communist in his politics by the State.

Bibles can be bought in secular bookshops because it is not considered to be dangerous (!).

Dr Turcinovic – Administrative head and teacher at the Theology Faculty in Zagreb.

A sensitive, kind theologian. Very warm greetings to Stella.

The new translation of the Bible has sold very well, going through eight editions in 12 years. (A lot of the work on it was done in the faculty).

Believing teachers find it easier in the cities than in the villages.

There are 300 students in the faculty – about 90 of whom are training for the priesthood. Most are doing combined studies (I am not quite sure exactly what he meant by this) and there are very few women. Roman Catholic ordinations are down in numbers (slightly) – the reasons suggested were the falling birth rate and rising emigration as well as secularisation. The Orthodox ordinations, however, are rising in number. He accounted for this difference by referring to the different standards of education for ordinands; all Catholic ordinands do a tough theology course, whereas the Orthodox have two courses – most studying the Liturgy and little else and a small elite studying theology.

The joint Catholic/Orthodox theological conferences that have so far taken place have been useful. He had not heard much about the recent Patmos conference.

The Christian/Marxist dialogue had finished, except in private.

He would like to arrange some contacts between English and Yugoslav theologians (I am following this up with Fr John Coventry in Cambridge).

Not much Liberation Theology is read because it has not been translated – some who know Spanish have done so.

Since John Paul II became Pope the traditionalists in Yugoslavia have gained more power in the Catholic church; perhaps they will take the church back to pre-Vatican II days.

Of the Protestants, he thought the evangelicals (Baptists and Pentecostals) were the most powerful.

The Tito telegrams were different in their warmth but he thought it unlikely that the Government suggested the idea of sending them. Stella had been mentioned in a Beograd newspaper some time ago linked with one of Tito’s close friends, who had just been disgracefully removed from his post, and the article claimed that she was a CIA agend (!).

Endre Langh – Reformed Pastor in Vinkoci.

Endre is very genial and friendly, speaks nearly perfect English and is a faithful Pastor. Earlier this week he had nine churches under his care;  he now has five. He feels that during the last 12 years he has not kept up his theological study – to supplement his income he teaches English privately to 21 pupils twice a week i.e. 42 hours a week on top of his pastoral work. His salary from the Turdinci church he puts straight back into their building fund.

He is somewhat disillusioned with the Reformed Church, and at one stage thought seriously of moving to the Pentecostal church. The Reformed Bishop in Yugoslavia seems to be hindering much good work (he did not pass on the invitations to the Novi Sad Pastors’ Conference; Endre only heard of it through Brother Veljko). The Bishop sent his only son to Ireland to study theology and then on to Edinburgh but he was very lazy and did not pass his exams (Endre heard of the exam failure from the tutor in Edinburgh whom he knew  - the Bishop had tried to cover it up). At the same time as this a very bright young pastor was offered a scholarship to study for a doctorate in Holland but the Bishop refused to let him go (Endre thought that this was out of envy because the Bishop only had an honorary doctorate).

The Lutheran Bishop is considered even worse in Endre’s eyes. This bishop once invited the atheistic Professor of History at Beograd University to address a conference of Pastors. He ended his speech by attacking Christianity for not being interested in material things. The Lutheran Bishop then gave him great thanks for his brilliant lecture, which had opened everyone’s eyes etc. During the open discussion afterwards, Endre stood up and objected to the Professor’s final remarks and claimed that Christianity was in fact vitally involved in material things. The Bishop did not allow a reply from the Professor, and said that Endre had obviously not understood the lecture. On receiving a sign from his own Bishop, Endre did not pursue the matter.

The congregation at Vinkovci is small – about 12, only two men and no young people except Kati (Endre’s daughter). Before Endre had come to Vinkonci had been mostly German and had emigrated when the Pastor left. The congregation at Turdinci is larger – many old women, one man  (the Chairman  of the church), six teenage girls and seven younger boys. Endre gives special lessons to these young people.

When he used to live in Turdinici, Endre had a very close relationship with the Catholic priest there (Miroslav). They used to tape their own sermons and listen to each other’s; Miroslav’s preaching became more biblical and this caused some problems in his church. His church blamed Endre for Miroslav’s decision to leave the Priesthood and get married, but in fact Endre had advised his friend to stay in the Priesthood. Miroslav is not very happily married with one son and does some manual work.

Endre is not close to the Catholic nor the Orthodox priest in Vinkovci for they did not come round to visit him when they arrived (as is the custom). He knew the previous Catholic priest well because when Endre arrived in Vinkovci he did visit the other clergy. This Priest criticised his Catholic Bishop for buying a Mercedes car without selling his Chrysler (which could have bought four or five smaller cars for Priests who have to travel to their various churches) and was removed to an obscure hill village. The Catholic church in Vinkovci has a total congregation on Sunday mornings of about 1,000: about 25,000 are on the church roll.

In the late 60s Catholic infiltration into the Party was encouraged by Glas Koncila (??), and in Vinkovci the official position, second only to that of Mayor, is held by a (secret) Catholic. The local director of Nama (a national supermarket) is also a (secret) Catholic. The Protestant attitude to this question is different – Endre has so far excommunicated eight church members for joining the Party i.e. he formally read out their names at the end of the morning service.

When he lived in Turdinci he went into a shop owned by the local Party Secretary and was annoyed at the man’s repeated swearing and blaspheming. There were many people in the shop and Endre told him that he was much more religious than himself – because he used the name of God so much!. The man stopped the blasphemy.

The police should be informed of any visitors (from abroad) who stay the night but Endre said he was stubborn and did not bother to do so. Brother Veljko usually conformed but the one time he forgot the police called on him. Brother Jo, the young Pentecostal Pastor, is officially only a clerk in the church (some Pentecostal denominations are against the idea of full time Pastors) and often used to be called up for military training on Sundays. Endre knew the officer in charge of the call up and told him that Jo was really a Pastor; there have been no such problems since.

While we were there, Endre helped the local optician to mend his headlight, fitted an electric socket onto a taxi man’s trailer and recorded some tapes for the Director of the Children’s Bank (in five days!).

In Croatia, unlike Serbia, visiting preachers do not need special permission.

The problem with believing teachers is illustrated by this story that Endre told of a local Orthodox Priest. Although it happened 17 years ago, it could still occur today. This Priest had been in a concentration camp during the war and, even when threatened with death, had refused to shave off his beard. His courage became well known in the town. He had a degree in History as well as Theology and applied for a job as a History teacher in Vinkovci, to supplement his income. The interviewers told him that he could have the job if he shaved off this beard. There were, however, already two bearded teachers on the staff.

Two of Endre’s jokes show his views on the social and political situation in Yugoslavia:

Three robots were translating at a conference of Yugoslavs, Russians and Americans and were talking over the coffee break. The Yugoslav robot apologises, “We have no coffee – we have no coffee”. The Russian robot asks, “What mean coffee – what mean coffee?” The American robot also looks baffled, “What mean we have no – what mean we have no?”

The Russian, the American and the Yugoslav Presidents were all coming up to a ‘T’ junction in their Presidential cars. The Russian chauffeur asked Brzhnev, “Which way shall we turn?”. “Left, you fool, of course, left.” The American chauffeur then came to the junction and asked Carter, “Which way shall we turn?”. “Right, of course, right.” When the Yugoslav chauffeur asked the same question Tito thought for a moment and replied, “Indicate left and turn right.”

Endre is not a patriot. This may be because he is from Hungarian stock. He has a mischievous cynicism about the System and the Party. “Equality? Of course we have equality, even though every official pronouncement is headed, ‘Party members and others’”. “Free speech? Of course we have freedom of speech – you just have to pay the consequences afterwards.”

He reckons that less than 5% of Yugoslavs do not have a gun. He has a licensed pistol and rifle.

I asked if it is easier under this system than it would have been under the Nazis and he replied, “Not necessarily so. At least the Nazis were honest and did not preach equality.” He was very surprised when I told him that I had seen Animal Farm displayed in a book shop window in Zagreb – in Croatian.

In 1972 Russian intelligence convinced Tito of the dangers of Croatian Nationalism and the Russian Ambassador offered the help of Soviet troops. This forced Tito to act. Endre does not think the Russians will attack Yugoslavia except in a World War. He feels that Western Democracy is ultimately doomed because it is too gentlemanly in war. He fears the civil war that would take place in Yugoslavia if Yugoslavia were involved in another war.

Brother Veljko’s nephew went to Egypt to teach the Arabs how to fly. Endre had heard an officer comment that in the event of war to make the Yugoslav army into a proper army they would have to shoot one out of five men, to be an example to the rest.

Some time ago the new American Ambassador had tried to get on friendly terms with Endre but Endre saw the danger in that. The Ambassador told him that when they moved into the new embassy 58 ‘bugs’ were found – one was even found in the toilet!

Mirko – Ex Police Chief in Vinkovci

A great friend of Endre’s. One of the last policemen to join the Party. A first class policeman who hated crime. A gentle giant.

Official (public) figures record that in Yugoslavia during the last 15 years, 2,400 policemen were killed on duty.

Endre told me that when a Catholic cross on a road junction was torn down repeatedly Mirko sought out and arrested the culprit, although the Catholic church had not reported the incidents.

Radomir Rakic – Orthodox Editor of Pravoslavlje

Friendly, not so sharp and shrewd as Kustic. Very warm greetings to Stella. He would like to receive Keston news service.

There are some believing teachers who come into Beograd to go to church – it is easier to remain unnoticed in a ‘forest’.

Every third Saturday they have a five minute programme on Radio Cologne. He is the liaison officer for this and organises a different diocese to record the programme each time. The other two Saturdays the Catholics and the Muslims broadcast (he criticised the Catholics’ broadcasts for being too political). These programmes cannot be picked up in Yugoslavia. He has had a letter from the pietist leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in West Germany, Marisav Z. Petrovic, 8 Munchen 45, Gublonzerstr 15/3, West Germany. (This criticised a few details of a programme.)

The pietist movement had a meeting on the 28 June attended by about 500 people which went on throughout the night. The monasteries at Velika and Remeta are at the centre of this movement.

Germany had sent a telegram on the death of a minister before Tito’s death and so obviously sent one on his death. It was short but not too warm. Radomir had difficulty thinking of something suitable for the editorial and in the end wrote on Brotherhood. He thinks that his job as Editor will be easier now because he has more freedom to criticise the leadership of the Government now that the Hero has gone.

The paper has a circulation of about 22,000 which he thinks is rather low among 10 million Serbs (in comparison with Glas Koncila). No copy has yet been confiscated, although at times he has had to tell ‘white lies’ to the authorities concerning certain stories.

He thought Stella’s planned trip to Macedonia had a lot to do with her deportation.

Max Erenragh, who used to be the Editor of a Beograd newspaper, has written for Pravo Slavlje under a pseudonym. Radomir asked me to write an article on the social situation of my new parish. He is planning to write an article on the use of Sunday.

A famous heart surgeon is a strong Orthodox and is President of the Orthodox Choir. The secretary of this choir  is an ear, nose and throat specialist. Both work in Beograd.

He thinks the religious situation is getting worse.

In May this year, the Bishops stated that the Priest Associations do not represent Priests spiritually but politically.

Many monks know the ‘cream’ of Yugoslav culture and some poets are going to monks in search of reality and truth.

Bishop Daniel – one of two Vicar Bishops at the Patriarchate.

Very conservative Orthodox, hospitable and intelligent. Greetings to Stella. He enjoyed her book but thought she was too easy on Stepinac who suffered more because of his politics than because of his Catholicism. He studied under Florovsky at Havard writing a thesis on Chrysostom.

Padre Pio prophesied that John Paul II would be Pope when he visited him while he was a Cardinal; he also prophesied that his life would end in bloodshed and so he would have to be a Pope in haste. Bishop Daniel believes that this accounts for the Pope’s fast schedule.

 

        C. Topic Analysis

The Church/State Situation Since 1972 and Hopes for the Future

Most people we talked to thought that not much had changed since 1972 – no one mentioned the New Legislation on the Legal Status of Religious Communities till I brought it up. Some, such as Rakic, saw a bleaker future but most envisioned  little change.

It is interesting to compare the attitudes to the State of Branko and Endre. Branko is proud of the ‘self-management’ idea and of Yugoslavia’s own style of Socialism. In no way is the State the Beast of Revelation. Endre sees only the economic bankruptcy of Socialism, especially when compared with West Germany where his son lives, and its hypocritical ‘equality’. Neither of them feel that they are under any pressure from the State in their respective jobs.

Tito’s Telegram

This does not seem to have originated out of a suggestion from the Government. Sagi Bunic of Zagreb Theological Faculty wrote a balanced article on Tito which was appreciated by our non-Christian friends at Zadar, who held a high opinion of Bunic.

Believing Teachers

Officially believers cannot be teachers; however, in practice some are but have to keep it very secret (going to church elsewhere and only teaching their particular subject). In the countryside the problems are greater than in the cities.

The Civilian Army

As in Israel, everyone is considered to be a soldier. Petar, of Zadar, thought that Yugoslavia could withstand an attack from outside (he saw the USA as more of a threat than the USSR) but this seems unlikely to me without allied help.

No one, under a certain age, is exempt from the civilian army (so Endre is in it).

 

          Conclusion

Yugoslavia may be the despair of tidy minds but we delighted in its variety and in the hospitality of its people.

 

My 1981 report to Stella Alexander is here and 1984 report is here.

 
Graham Kings

Graham Kings

 
 
Wood panel

Interweavings

Wood panel

A bronze