Our executive committee member Heather Staff reports from the Balkans on her experiences of peace-making at a critical time of political upheaval.
Over the last few years, it has been a great delight to be part of a programme called Ambassadors for a Better World, run by two organisations: Renewing Our Minds (ROM) which focuses on conflict resolution and personal transformation in leadership, and EDI, which works to develop ideas around economics, diplomacy and integrity. This forum has brought together experts from all over the Balkan region and across the world to help train young people in leadership.
We have been able to listen to and work with those who lived through conflict and now hope and pray for a ripple on the water and a wind of peace through the valleys. Over this time, we have seen and felt a growing game of political chess and ethnic nationalism being played between the hard left and far right, with borders being disputed. This has been worsened by economic and political tensions in Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially when it comes to unemployment, and the pressure of the refugee crisis with camps in Serbia and Macedonia. There are many problems around the Kremlin’s involvement, seen as helpful by some and by others as a highly destabilising and dangerous factor.
Concern remains that the European Union has better things to worry about than the Balkan region. Previously, there was certainty that the EU would always stabilise the Balkans. However, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have led to distinct unsettlement and concern that those who seek to do harm within the region may be allowed to turn the tide however it suits them.
While talk of a large-scale armed conflict remains distant – and in no way wanted among the people – disputes and tensions are growing stronger. The distinction between nationalism and patriotism is an ongoing conversation with far reaching consequences. Human rights issues, corruption and disputed governments all remain threats to a lasting peace. Macedonia currently has no formally recognised Government and protests are ongoing. In Kosovo, violent protests and an ongoing security situation in areas remain tense, all leading to eyes that perhaps took a fragile peace for granted to look again and for the church to hope and pray for continued lasting peace.
In the midst of this, the refugee crisis remains perhaps the biggest area of instability. Yet this is also the area of most hope and opportunity, where longed-for ripples and whispers are occurring and where new communities are showing the world how to love. Refugees are giving their life to Christ and those who have fled persecution are finding new homes. In Croatia, a group of 30 Iranian Refugees have established an Iranian Christian community. This community in Zagreb is being given practical assistance such as legal and integrational assistance, as they are now awaiting approval of their asylum requests. Being a convert to Christianity as a refugee in the camps comes with its own dangers, but in Zagreb they are receiving spiritual support and practical protection.
The refugee crisis has also opened up tensions around border disputes and highlighted nationalism within countries. Macedonia has declared the North and South border areas as crisis zones. Pastors I have visited in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro are working hard to train young leaders who will not forget the lessons of the past and will stand against hatred, practice forgiveness and look for a better way, a way forged deep in Christ.
For the refugee crisis; that solutions will be found and people will continue finding Christ. For those who are hungry to be fed, clothed and loved. That political solutions will be matched with practical action.
For the peacemakers; that those who are working on border disputes and hoping to solve ethnic tensions will find wisdom. That dangerous nationalism from both sides will give way to pride in a country matched with love and hope. That the stranger will always find a home.
For economic solutions; that people will find dignity and a country not seen as a failed state but as a success. That in Bosnia and Macedonia, solutions will arise to boost jobs and the economy.
For protection; that the hands of those who seek to harm, cause mischief and upset will be stayed; that international bodies will not forget the vastness and the many identities of the Balkan region.
For churches; that they would continue to be a source of hope and strength and not find themselves caught in a political game of chess.
Above all, let us keep praying for hope and change; for the kingdom to come and for extraordinary people to rise up to lead in areas of diplomacy, business, human rights, politics, journalism and the arts.
For those that are interested in some more background and opinion on the situation in the Balkans, this Guardian article is also interesting and informative.