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Missionary finds protection as protests grow in E. Europe

TIRANA, Albania (BP)–A Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionary escaped injury when 20 to 30 men attacked his car during violence that erupted in late January.

Albanians rioted for several days after the government shut down illegal investment schemes and much of the population lost money.

Missionary Lawrence Duhon of Euless, Texas, was driving alone through Zhame, a village between the capital city, Tirana, and his home in Fier when a mob surrounded his car and began beating it with steel rods.

The windshield was shattered, a side window was broken out and a door handle was ripped off by attackers who tried to forcibly enter the car. But the car window beside Duhon somehow withstood the heavy blows by men swinging steel rods against it.

Duhon was unhurt. “I was personally untouched, thanks to God’s hand of protection. It was amazing for me to watch them beat the driver’s side window hard with big rods without it breaking!” he said.

After several long seconds, the road cleared on the other side and Duhon was able to drive his battered car free.

Duhon works with a new Baptist church in Fier attended by 20 to 30 people most Sundays. He plans to begin other new churches later this year. He said he believes his car was not targeted because of who he is, but because it was mistaken for a vehicle driven by a government official.

Many Albanians sold their homes to invest in fraudulent, pyramid-type investment schemes. The schemes went bankrupt, and the government froze all the assets and shut down operations, Duhon said.

Albania President Sali Berisha announced in late January that investors would be paid back. Later he said only the poorest investors would receive compensation. Two state banks were to begin making payments to these people. “This is a major national crisis that may even rival the last days of communism here in scope and importance,” Duhon said.

Albania’s communist government once bragged theirs was the most atheistic country on earth. But since communism fell in 1990, Albanians have been very responsive to the gospel. Scores of new believers have been baptized at a time and churches and Bible studies have been springing up across the country. Foreign Mission Board workers have sponsored outreach efforts in many outlying villages.

Nearby in Bulgaria, another former communist nation, citizens also are taking to the streets to protest economic woes. Missionaries Paul and Judy Ridgway of Brookfield, Mo., and Benton, Ill., respectively, are unable to venture far from home because residents are blockading roads to protest spiraling inflation.

For some time, many of Bulgaria’s 8 million people have been without money to buy food or heat their homes. Bulgarian money continues to plummet in value against the dollar, and many stores have closed.

On Jan. 23, the Foreign Mission Board released $100,000 for heating fuel and food packets to Bulgaria. That follows $30,000 released in September.

“People buy dollars, even one or two at a time, so instead of their monthly income lasting one week, it will last maybe two,” Ridgway said. Diesel fuel is gone and other types of fuel are rapidly selling out.

Blockades have caused mammoth traffic jams. “Friday we left Sofia. About 10 miles out, the road was blockaded by protesters,” he recounted. “Cars were backed up for as far as we could see, four abreast at many places.”

Bulgaria overthrew its communist government several years ago, but disgruntled citizens soon returned to the status quo. The country has lagged far behind more progressive Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic in economic gains.

In recent years the government has teamed up with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and waged a bitter media campaign against Baptists and other evangelicals. Baptists have struggled to maintain an identity as leaders have lumped together Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Krishna followers and Eastern religions under the category of “foreign cults.”

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