Out of the Rubble in Croatia

We’re republishing this as part of our 25th anniversary series featuring favorite stories from our archives. This story by Doug Hsu appeared in ANM’s Voices in the Wilderness magazine in 2006. Enjoy!

At 31, Damir Spoljaric could hardly wait to marry. He had spent most of his 20s contemplating celibacy, as he was fully engrossed in the work of the Lord. But the Lord gave him peace about marrying, and soon afterwards he excitedly proposed to his longtime friend Melita under a bridge in Croatia on June 18, 1995.

The wedding date was set for just a few weeks later, on August 5. His country was still in the midst of a war of independence (from Yugoslavia). But even in wartime, people still have to work, eat, steep…and marry. Or so he thought.

In the wee hours of the morning on his wedding day, Damir was rudely awakened by a huge explosion. A thousand kilograms of TNT had just exploded a few miles from his home. What was going on? After a short while, another huge explosion—this time, even closer. Lord, what’s happening? Only later would Damir learn that the Croatian army had just launched “Operation Storm,” a large-scale military operation to recapture areas held by enemy Serbian forces.

With his thin bedroom walls rattling like crazy, Damir realized that any moment could be his last. Lord, maybe it’s not Your will for me to get married after all, Damir mused wryly. His relatives and friends began calling in to inform him that they were fleeing the city and could not attend his wedding. “I understand,” he joked nervously, “that you’re supposed to attend a wedding, not a funeral!”

But even though most of the guests had fled and the city had turned into a ghost town, Damir and Melita decided to brave the bomb attacks and get married anyway. Understandably, the minister performed a quick ceremony. The young couple then drove off hurriedly for their honeymoon, dodging air raids and artillery shelling, and all the while praying fervently behind the wheel! For Damir was determined that nothing—not even bombs falling from the sky—would ever stop him from praying and believing that out of the rubble, God would still bring forth a miracle of love and deliverance.

And God proved him right! Not only did they manage to enjoy their wedding and honeymoon admidst the warfare, but also before the week was over Damir had baptized three men: a Croatian Catholic, a Serbian Orthodox, and a Bosnian Muslim.

Independence and Brokenness

Like fresh popcorn bursting in rapid-fire succession, so also a host of small countries quickly exploded into existence after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s—Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro (often called the Balkan region of Europe). One of these countries, Croatia—a breathtakingly beautiful land stretching from the Mediterranean coast to the eastern Alps—fought a brutal war of independence from 1991 to 1995. By the time the war ended, the country was in ruins.

“Our country has had far too many wars,” laments Damir Spoljaric, who today serves as the president of the Evangelical Church of Croatia. “Just in this last century we have experienced five major wars, including the various Balkan wars. World War I even started in Yugoslavia. There has been so much bloodshed, and we are so tired of war…”

Even more troubling for Damir, though, is the fact that his own corner of Europe—the Balkan region—has never experienced any kind of spiritual revival in history. Centuries ago, the Protestant Reformation was choked in this area by force. The three main ethnic groups in this region—Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians—are fiercely divided along religious fault lines: Croats are Roman Catholic, Serbs are Orthodox and Bosnians are Muslim.

The overwhelming majority are outwardly religious but inwardly nominal: very few have a personal relationship with God, and never before has any kind of spiritual awakening occurred here. Moreover, instead of helping to unite the various ethnic groups, religion in the Balkans has only served to fan the flames of mutual distrust and hatred.

“The problem in our country is that there is too much religion and too little Gospel,” bemoans Darmir. “We explain to people that religion is not enough, that they need a relationship with Jesus Christ in order to transform their lives. It’s hard, because people think that if you’re not Catholic, then you can’t be a true Croat. Or that if you’re not Orthodox, then you can’t be a good Serb. Because we’re not preaching Catholicism or Orthodoxy, they think that we are some foreign sect, some imported religious group!”

According to the most optimistic estimates, born-again believers in Croatia make up less than 0.5% of the population (roughly 10,000 among a population of 4.5 million). The figures for neighboring countries like Bosnia and Montenegro are even more dismal.

Change is coming

But winds of change are finally blowing through the Balkans: the wind of God’s Spirit, drawing repentant sinners to Christ.

“We’re expecting a harvest of souls now,” Damir proclaims confidently. “During the Balkan wars in the 1990s, the Lord gave us an unprecedented season of sowing. The Croatian church distributed lots of Christian literature and Bibles. We ministered to many war refugees who were suffering and shared with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And we truly believe the harvest is coming!”

Besides pastoring one of the largest evangelical churches in Croatian, Damir oversees 40 other churches in his homeland and also partners with several churches started by his denomination in neighboring Bosnia and Montenegro. His position in the Croatian church, coupled with his “God-can-and-will-do” attitude, give him an unique perspective on the movement of God’s Spirit in the Balkans.

“We are living at a great moment in history now,” continues Damir excitedly. “What we have prayed for many years is coming true at last: people in our region are finally coming to know the Lord! For example, last year I attended a church dedication in Bosnia. There were two old Bosnian ladies who had prayed for fifty years for God to work in their city. Two major wars occurred during that time, but still they did not give up praying. Finally, after fifty years of prayer, God answered with fruit: today there is a growing church in that city, led by an outstanding young pastor!”

Damir’s eyes flash with passion as he continues. “I know of many saints who had prayed faithfully for many years for their children’s salvation, who died without seeing any fruit. But after their death, we are seeing their prayers answered: their children are coming to faith now and are getting baptized! In our own church, we recently baptized 15 new souls. We are all seeking to forget the strife and divisions of the past, and we are looking ahead to see how best to evangelize our nation. It truly seems like the dawn of a new day.”

Harvest in the least evangelized part of Europe

Under the leadership of Damir, who still has the same unflappable faith that carried him through his wedding jitters, the Croatian church has a God-sized outreach vision to witness beyond its own borders to the neighboring countries which also desperately need the Gospel. For example, the Evangelical Church of Croatia recently sent one lady to Bosnia to evangelize Muslims. It also sent another missionary to Montenegro to start the first evangelical church there.

“This part of Europe is the least evangelized,” explains Damir intently, “and we are just starting to see the harvest. But we know it’s just the beginning, because we have sown so much! It’s like in the days of Elijah: when he first saw the cloud, it was small—containing just a few drops of rain. But in a short period of time, it led to a downpour! We are expecting the same! Though we are few in number, we will not give up! We are pressing on, because we are under the banner of Jesus Christ!”

Just as God brought forth miracles of love and deliverance out of the rubble of Damir’s wedding day, so also in this present time is He bringing forth miracles of love and deliverance out of the rubble of war-torn Croatia and her neighbors. New souls are being saved. New churches are being planted. And this is just the beginning of the harvest, in this long overlooked corner of Europe.

The church of Croatia could definitely use a helping hand, however, as it seeks to rise out of the rubble of war. Entire areas of Croatia were devastated during the War of Independence (1991-1995), and postwar unemployment in many parts of the country still hovers between 25% and 60%. Many local congregations number just 20 to 40 members and are therefore unable to support their own pastor, let alone pay for their own church building. The critical financial need of the hour? Pastor support and funds for church buildings. The critical spiritual need of the hour? Prayer, and more prayer.

Twenty-five years after we started partnering with native ministries like this one to reach the unreached, the work continues, and we are closer than ever to seeing the Gospel proclaimed and lived out among every people group in the world. Thank you for your partnership in the Gospel!

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