UPDATED Thursday, April 10, 2008.
SKOPJE, Macedonia (BP)–Southern Baptist missionaries based in Macedonia have appealed for prayer support as ethnic violence in this troubled Balkan nation threatens to dissolve into civil war.
Macedonia, which was part of Yugoslavia before the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been ripped by sporadic violence since February as ethnic Albanian rebels have sought to establish their own country. About two-thirds of Macedonia’s 2 million people are Slavs, while most of the others are ethnic Albanians.
Southern Baptists should pray for both ethnic groups, said missionary Kyle Kirkpatrick, who coordinates International Mission Board work in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje.
“God loves both of these groups here,” he said. “We do ask you to pray for our ministry here. During this time of turmoil many people are without hope. The economy, which was always bad, is now near collapse.
“Pray that the church in Macedonia would not give into the general mood of fear and hopelessness, but that she would demonstrate the love and hope that comes from knowing Jesus Christ,” Kirkpatrick said.
The worst violence in Skopje occurred the last week of June when some 5,000 ethnic Slavs launched a violent protest against the nation’s parliament building. Armed protesters fired on the building, forcing Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski to flee for a time.
The protest erupted after Western troops escorted Albanian rebels out of Aracinovo village to preserve a local cease-fire, a move interpreted by Macedonians as helping them escape. Many Slavs were angry that rebels were allowed to keep their weapons when they left the village.
Since heavy fighting in February, including artillery shelling, has occurred in the villages of Nikustak and Aracinovo in northeastern Macedonia and sporadic fighting has occurred in Tetovo, the country’s second largest city.
After the violent protest, an uneasy peace returned to Skopje, a city of some 600,000 people, Kirkpatrick said.
“Downtown things appear pretty normal. People are going to work and shopping. But people are pretty angry underneath,” he said.
The missionaries have planned their departure route if conditions worsen. But they are not as concerned for their own safety as they are for the promising ministries they have seen in recent months.
Twenty Macedonians have made decisions for Christ in the last seven months,” said missionary Rose Follar*. One church was started two years ago and in recent months three Bible studies have been started that missionaries hope will become churches.
“We are praying that more people will hear the gospel and be able to respond,” Follar said. “This is a time people are uncertain about their own physical future and a time when their hearts are ready to hear.”
She stressed that prayer support is an integral part of their ministry. For example, journeyman Jeff Williams saw five people pray to receive Christ on his birthday, a day when thousands of Southern Baptists were praying for him.
“The new believers just keep praying and hoping something will work out,” Follar said.
Although most Southern Baptist ministry in Macedonia is focused on Macedonians, Edward and Natalie Vaughan* arrived in June to begin outreach to ethnic Albanians living in Macedonia, Kirkpatrick said. Two additional couples are scheduled to arrive in July to work with Macedonians: Samuel and Ashlyn Tafford* will be based in Bitola while Larry and Karen Calvert and their two children will work in Skopje.
Southern Baptists also have missionaries serving in Albania, Kosovo and most other parts of the former Yugoslavia. The IMB currently is seeking missionaries to serve in Slovenia, a country bordering Austria that once was part of Yugoslavia.
Missionaries are praying that a solution to the current crisis can be found soon, Kirkpatrick said.
“It’s a tense time. As it goes on, people are getting more nervous that it will become more widespread,” he said.
One major result of the conflict has been people displaced from their homes. Authorities estimate about 100,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, have been displaced by the current fighting.
A United Nations relief agency reported that more than 65,000 Macedonian refugees are in Kosovo, 6,000 are in Serbia and at last 30,000 are displaced inside Macedonia. As many as 8,000 people were crossing into Kosovo each day in late June, the relief agency reported.
As politicians struggle to establish political peace, missionaries work to offer ultimate peace in this troubled land, where ministry opportunities will continue for years to come.
*Names changed for security reasons.
For more information on Southern Baptist work in Macedonia, visit www.peopleteams.com/macedonians.
— Search for prayer requests from Macedonia: www.imb.org/CompassionNet/countries.asp
— Macedonia map and country information: www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/mk.html
— Music video: Don’t Say No: http://real.imb.org:8080/ramgen/Media/dont_say_no.rm