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Croatia – Bosnia & Herzegovina Trip Report

Slavko and Sanja Hadzic and James

James (right) with Slavko and Sanja Hadzic, Sarajevo

James Vaughton has recently returned from 10 days of meetings and visiting partners in Croatia and Bosnia. It has taken four years, with a pandemic and a war in the mix, but this visit means he has now been to every nation TEN works in, in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Here he shares a report on how he got on…

29 March – 1 April, EMCI Biennial Conference, Umag, Croatia

At the invitation of European Christian Mission International Director, Simon Marshall, I attended the ECMI Biennial Conference. It is very much a conference for the ECMI family, with over 500 in attendance, but also an opportunity for those with whom they work with to attend. It was a full time of meetings and an opportunity to teach at a seminar on youth discipleship.

James and Simon Marshall
James and Simon Marshall

ECMI and TEN are exploring ways we may work together in the future to serve leaders in South-eastern Europe. I also had the opportunity to meet with connections at Youth for Christ International and Mark McCormick, a long-term friend of TEN, who helped us establish our partner relationships in Moldova. One of the early opportunities, as a result of our relationship with ECMI, is that we hope to further encourage the church planting work in Moldova, a nation where ECM do not currently operate.

1–4 April, Split, Croatia

TEN partner and leader of Good News Church in Split, Vjeko Mrsic, arrived at the ECMI conference on Friday 31 March. He stayed the night at the hotel where we talked everything from church leadership to football! We then drove 600km south to Split, via Camp Fokus where we hope to be taking a team of young people to serve on a summer camp in early July. You can find out more here.

Josipa and Vjeko Mrsic
Josipa and Vjeko Mrsic

Arriving in Split Saturday evening I settled into the church apartment. On the Sunday morning, I spoke at the Palm Sunday service at Good News Church in Split, on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It was an encouraging time to be with Good News Church and meet those who are part of the church family. I spent lunch with the Mrsic family and joined other leaders, Robi and Ivana for an evening walk around Split.

On Monday 3rd April I spent most of the day with Ico Matulic. Ico (pictured with one of the men who volunteers at Teen Challenge) is the other TEN partner in Split and the church leader at the Evangelical Pentecostal Church on the island of Korcula. He and his wife, Jagoda, moved there in 2017/18 following a year of Ico visiting the island to plant the church. People come from all over the Island and even from Orebic, which is a town on a peninsular, on the mainland. They now have a church of about 30-40 people and mid-week groups too. Ico is also the national director for Teen Challenge in Croatia. He took me to a site in Split and another, newly opened venue, in Salona – a suburb of Split, which is the old capital of Dalmatia! Titus, one of St. Paul’s team probably spent time there. Ico very much has a heart for drug addicts and Teen Challenge do work to support prevention around addiction through education. Teen Challenge provide support for those coming out of Rehab too, when they are in that vulnerable stage of leaving the rehab centre, by providing a space for them to come meet others and help them into employment.

Ico Matulic with a Volunteer and James
Ico Matulic with a Volunteer and James

It was fantastic to see the church in Croatia in action, meets lots of people and learn more about God’s people in the nation. I think it is true to say that the churches in Croatia are stronger than many in the Western Balkans, but they are still a small minority in this majority Catholic country. There are about 5000 protestant Christians in a population of 3.8 million. This works out to be 0.13%.

Having enjoyed my time in Split with sunshine and some warmth, the forecast at my next destination looked rather more wintry.

4–7 April, Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH)

Following a long bus ride from Split through snowy mountains I arrived in Sarajevo. I enjoyed a late evening meal of Cevapi with Tomislav Dobutovic, pastor at Sarajevo Baptist Church. The next day I spent the morning and lunch with Dragan Nedic, of the Evangelical Pentecostal Church in Sarajevo. It was good to hear something of his story, get an update on the work of the church and pray together. I then re-joined Tomislav for some more time together in the afternoon. He decided to take me up Trebevic mountain (pictured) to see the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics Bobsleigh track and then visit the church!

Tomislav Dobutovic and James
Tomislav Dobutovic and James

It was encouraging to hear all that Sarajevo Baptist Church are involved with. It is probably the largest church in the country with 50-60 in regular attendance. They have a fantastic building as a resource. They run English classes, various humanitarian aid programmes (HFTH, WinterHelp) and theological training at degree level (3 years) and a Bible School (1 year) for lay leaders too. The English teaching programme, and the help for those affected by severe poverty is a great tool for reaching out as a Christian witness in this majority Muslim city.

Several of the partners have positive relationships with the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities. It was very encouraging to hear about the inter-faith work. They seem to be able to maintain the balance of not diluting their Christian beliefs, being transparent and open about difference and have good relationships with those of other faith. I reflected that they may be able to teach us something here in the UK.

On Thursday 6th April I drove for over three hours up to Banja Luka in the Republic of Srpska to meet Ljiljana Banicek and her pastor Sinisa Stojkovic, of Banja Luka Christian Fellowship.

I was leaving the Federation part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and I was heading into the Republic of Srpska. It was interesting to learn that the spread of churches and Christians across the nation is not even. The numbers are very low and most of the protestant churches are in the Federation. This is the blue area on the map. According to partners there are about 15-20 churches in this region. In addition to this there are some potential church plants, which is encouraging. The area is mainly populated by Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. Following the war there are now very few ethnic Serbs in the area.

The Republic of Srpska (light purple on the map below) is predominantly ethnically Serbian, with most of the ethnic Bosniaks moving to the Federation area in the years that followed the war. This area is more spiritually challenging. Probably due to the cultural orthodox Christianity faith that holds such power. There are between 3-5 protestant churches in this region. In a population of just over 1 million people. This makes it possibly the least evangelised area that TEN operates in with less Christians than Montenegro but about twice the population!

Map showing the Republic of Srpska

Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a beautiful country. Alpine around Sarajevo and up into the centre, the mountains soften to something akin to mid-Wales as you get past Zenica and as you come to Banja Luka and further north and east it seems more like rural Wiltshire, with rolling hills and lots of agriculture.

My time with Sinisa and Ljilja in Banja Luka, was relatively brief, but I had a few hours with them. This gave time for me to hear the miraculous story of how the church building came to be purchased and hear their story of how they came to be in ministry. Banja Luka is the second largest town in BiH. The church does lots of work in the community and among students in the city. They currently have a Ukrainian pastor and his family living in on of the church apartments and out of their limited resources they are supporting that as they have fled the war.

I drove south to Zenica in the late afternoon where I met Dario and Sylvia Kapin, church leaders in Zenica, for an evening meal. Dario is a ball of energy. Here again, I had the opportunity to listen to their amazing and at times sacrificial testimony. Dario has a brilliant bee project, producing honey, which raises several thousand pounds per year to support their ministry which TEN has supported through funds raised by our gift catalogue, published in the run up to Christmas. One of his customers is a locally well known footballer!

Dario and Sylvia Kapin
Dario and Sylvia Kapin

Dario is an unlikely media star! In a nation with a population of 3.2 million people, there are just 400 protestant Christians and yet he seems to get coverage on national TV and national and local radio. A couple of days after I left, he had a one-hour slot on radio talking about Jesus! I asked him about why he does this and other things, such as concerts in the town centre. Does he see it as fruitful? His response was that whilst he may not see the fruit, he believes it is important to do these things as they break down barriers in the nominally Muslim part of BiH. His hope is that it will bear fruit. He may not see it, but someone will! His cheeriness in the face of challenges and tough spiritual ground is inspiring and challenging. He, like all those I met, is deeply grateful to TEN for our support of their ministry.

As my time came to an end, I was back in Sarajevo. I had just the time I needed to meet with long time TEN partners, Slavko and Sanja Hadzic for a catch up and lunch. He is the one partner from BiH I had met before, and it was good to catch up, following him having a busy time of speaking in various places in Moldova and Wales at student missions and churches!

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