Thursday, July 16, 2009

Yearbook Experiences - United By Love During War - pt 1

(experience & photo on pgs 190-192 of the 2009 Yearbook)

A Stirring International Convention
Jehovah's Witnesses in Yugoslavia had never yet experienced the joy of hosting an international convention. Imagine their excitement when in 1991 the Governing Body announced that one of the "Lovers of Freedom" international conventions was to be held in Zagreb, Croatia! However, there were problems. Ever since Croatia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia, war clouds had been gathering. Would it be wise to hold a convention? The safety of both the foreign and local delegates was paramount. After much prayer and deliberation, the brothers decided to go ahead with preparations for the convention. Theodore Jaracz, a member of the Governing Body, traveled to Croatia a few weeks before the convention to assist with its organization. Because all other public events in Zagreb had been canceled, public interest was focused on what was to go on in Dinamo Stadium. As the time for the convention drew near, the situation in the country continued to destabilize. Daily our brothers weighed the risks, raising the same question over and over again - Should the preparations continue, or should the convention be canceled? The brothers persistently petitioned Jehovah in prayer, asking for his guidance. Amazingly, the political climate stabilized, and they were able to hold the convention from August 16-18, 1991.

One cannot imagine a greater contrast. While the surrounding countries teetered on the brink of violent hostilities, Jehovah's Witnesses in Croatia were welcoming thousands of guests to the "Lovers of Godly Freedom" international convention. As many locals were fleeing the country, brothers and sisters from 15 countries were gathering together in love and freedom. Large groups arrived by air from the United States, Canada, and other Western countries. Because of the military situation, the airport in Zagreb was closed and aircraft had to land in Ljubljana, Slovenia. From there the delegates traveled by bus to Zagreb. The courage of the visiting brothers was a fine witness to the populace, and their presence was an invaluable source of encouragement to the local brothers. The largest group - about 3,000 delegates - came from Italy. It felt as if their warm affection and exuberance set the convention on fire. (1 Thessalonians 5:19) It was especially faith strengthening to host five members of the Governing Body. To this day many fondly remember the talks given by Carey Barber, Lloyd Barry, Milton Henschel, Theodore Jaracz, and Lyman Swingle. Undeterred by the turbulent times, these brothers, with their many years of experience, boldly entered the country to fortify the brothers with upbuilding talks. Because of the political unrest, the authorities feared ethnic clashes between delegates from different parts of Yugoslavia. How relieved they were to see them not only gathering together peacefully but also displaying warm, brotherly affection. With each passing day, the number of policemen present decreased. This memorable convention demonstrated that Jehovah's Witnesses are a true international brotherhood. Reflecting on this would help the brothers maintain unity during the trials that lay ahead. The buses taking the Serbian and Macedonian delegates home were among the last vehicles allowed to return through the checkpoint between Croatia and Serbia. After our brothers headed safely across the border, it was closed. Many say it was at this time that war began.
In the following months and years, the republics that had formerly been part of Yugoslavia went on to establish independent countries with their own governments. The ensuing upheaval cost tens of thousands of lives and untold suffering. How would our brothers fare through this time of turmoil? ... (experience continued on pages 194, 235 & 238)

*You can check out a map from my previous post to get a visual picture of where this was taking place.

A City Under Siege
Many do not consider themselves very devout; yet, it is religion that has divided the people. Most Bosnians are Muslim, while Serbs belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church and Croatians to the Roman Catholic Church. The alarming increase in religious intolerance and ethnic hatred in the early 1990's resulted in the heartrending policy called ethnic cleansing. Advancing armies evicted civilians - in both small villages and large cities - to create ethnically pure areas for their own religious groups. This created tests of neutrality for our brothers and sisters. In Bosnia, as in the other countries of the former Yugoslavia, most people belong to their parents' religion, and the family name often identifies the family's religious backround. When honesthearted people become servants of Jehovah, they may be viewed as betrayers of their family and their tradition. Yet, our brothers have learned that loyalty to Jehovah serves as a protection.

As we have seen, the Yugoslavia brothers were deeply moved by the love and unity displayed at the 1991 "Lovers of Godly Freedom" convention in Zagreb, Croatia. This unforgettable convention fortified them for the ordeals ahead. One moment, Bosnians, Serbs, and Croatians were living together peacefully in Sarajevo. The next moment, an army surrounded that city and everyone was trapped - including our brothers. Although the political situation was turbulent, no one anticipated just how long the strife would last.

Molded By Jehovah's Thinking
"Hatred between Serbs and Albanians was intense," said one sister. "It was something we learned from childhood. Even after learning the truth, those feelings are not easily erased. Many of us had to make big changes to adopt Jehovah's thinking. Because of this hatred, even while learning that Jehovah is love, I tended to avoid a sister in the congregation just because she was a Serb. As I continued to study, however, I came to appreciate that while the teachings of other religions divide, the truth from Jehovah's Word unites." Has the transforming power of God's Word helped this sister to put on the new Christian personality? "Today," she reported, "I am happy to serve in the same congregation with my Serb brothers and sisters." (Colossians 3:7-11; Hebrews 4:12)
True Christian unity stands out in this religiously divided world. While nationalism was making people burn houses and throw hand grenades, our brothers were traveling to Belgrade, in Serbia, for a convention held in July 1998. Peacefully riding on the bus together were Albanians, Croatians, Macedonians, and Roma. Dashurie Gashi, who was on her way to that convention to be baptized, relates: "When the soldiers stopped the bus, we could see the look of shock on their faces. In the midst of all the ethnic tensions in these countries, here we were united as one people - Jehovah's people."

-end of part one-