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Southern Baptists help hungry Bulgarians survive

SOFIA, Bulgaria (BP)–Southern Baptists have helped many Bulgarian Baptists survive a hard winter by providing $130,000 worth of food and fuel through a relief program administered by the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board.

Bulgarian Baptists hope this kind of response from Baptists in other lands will do more than just help their needy countrymen. They hope the aid also will help them win respect from their government, which has maintained an anti-evangelical stance in recent years. Less government interference, Baptist leaders say, will produce more evangelism and church growth.

One positive sign amid the current crisis, Baptist leaders said, is government permission to receive aid from evangelical Christian organizations outside the country. Such aid had been banned.

Since November more than 28,000 food parcels provided by Southern Baptist hunger funds have been distributed by the Bulgarian Baptist Union. About 4,000 Baptist families are receiving a monthly packet of basic foods and $6 in local currency to help pay heating costs. In one recent month, each family received an extra food packet to be shared with someone outside the church membership.

“The people in the churches have expressed deep gratitude for this assistance and have prayed for the Lord to give them the possibility to return this blessing to other needy nations,” said Paul Ridgway, a Southern Baptist foreign missionary based in Sofia.

Bulgarian Baptists have distributed more than $320,000 in aid this winter. Baptists in Great Britain, Germany and other European countries have sent funds, and the Baptist World Alliance has provided help through its Baptist World Aid Program.

In addition to church members, Baptists also have provided food to five orphanages, a hospital, two kindergartens and 43 Turkish families, said Theo Angelov, Bulgarian Baptist Union president, said. Baptists also are planning to open a kitchen that will feed 60 to 80 people one meal a day.

Bulgaria is teetering on the brink of total economic collapse. Ninety percent of Bulgarians are below the poverty line. The average Bulgarian salary has fallen to below $10 a month, but a United Nations study said Bulgarians need $4 a day to survive. Baptist pastors earn about $18 a month.

Six out of 10 Bulgarians are reported to be living mostly on bread and yogurt. Most people are surviving only because of food they preserved and stored last summer, a Sofia newspaper reported.

Many Bulgarian Baptists fall into the country’s poorest category of people. Eight of the union’s 35 churches are made up of minority groups such as Gypsies or converted Muslims. Unemployment among these believers is 95 percent to 98 percent, said Angelov, who conceived and directs the Baptists’ “Winter Help” program of assistance.

At least some Bulgarian government leaders acknowledge the seriousness of the country’s condition.

“Bulgarian people are going through an unbelievable economical catastrophe at this moment. A big part of the population lives on the edge of poverty. For some people the question is not whether or not to live a life of dignity but whether or not to survive physically in the next months,” wrote Georgy Krasteve in a letter to the Evangelical Alliance of Bulgaria in late February.

Krasteve, an official in the Bulgarian government’s Ministry of Religion, also urged evangelical churches in Bulgaria to “try to ask for the cooperation and help of international religious and civil organizations in order to secure some humanitarian help for the poorest parts of the Bulgarian population.”

He assured the alliance his department “commits itself to assuring that such humanitarian aid will be free of customs duties and will be sent to the evangelical churches to which it is addressed.”

Krastev’s letter, which praised the “social and humanitarian activities of the evangelical churches,” unfortunately only represents his office, not the entire Bulgarian government, one worker in Sofia observed. So, though positive, the letter may not indicate a change of heart toward evangelical Christians, he said.

An orphanage Baptists want to build in Sofia, for example, is still being blocked by the government, though its construction was initially approved in 1993. The orphanage is part of a seminary and union office complex Baptists want to build on the outskirts of Sofia.

In recent years the government has teamed up with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and waged a bitter media campaign against Baptists and other evangelicals, categorizing them as “foreign cults” along with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Krishna followers and Eastern religions.

Churches and individuals may help with human needs ministries directed by Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board workers by sending contributions to P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.

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