The Christian Soldiers of Serbia
Gjorgje Nikolic wrote well. He loved to write, and with a job for a paper like Belgrade’s Politika, just after World War I, he had great opportunities.
With the opportunities came a deeply troubling experience. In the fall of 1926 the reporting manager of Politika sent him to observe a strange case before the Danube Division of the Serbian army in Vojvodina. Gjorgje wrote:
A prison car stops at nine a.m. before the building where a military court is in session. The door is unlocked and seven men step out. They wear the peasant clothes of Banat district. It is the first of many groups of Nazarenes to be tried for the same offence. . . . Quietly, like sheep, they are led into the dark and narrow halls of the courthouse, surrounded by soldiers with rifles and bayonets glistening in the sun.
In a little while, on orders from the judge, one of them enters the courtroom.
“Are you Spira Matic?”
“That is my name.”
“Step up to the Holy Gospel.”
Spira steps to the place.
“You will be sentenced today for two offences: The first one, you have refused to take the oath at the military front on the 3’d of August as ordered by your superior, and you also refused to take up arms in accordance with the given command. The second offence: Since 1907 you have been a member of the Nazarene sect, forbidden according to law.
Have you done this?”
“Why did you not obey the officer who gave you the command, and who allowed you ten minutes for consideration?”
“What I believe did not allow me to obey that command.”
“Do you know that such an act is punished by imprisonment at hard labour?”
“Yes. I know it.”
“Then why did you do it?”
After a long interrogation Nikola Rasic comes in. His eyes are bright and his face betrays his nervousness.
“Why did you not obey your superiors?
“I am not permitted to do so.”
“By the Holy Gospel.”
“Do you have children?”
“Yes, I have seven children.”
“Why did you accept the Nazarene religion?”
“God desired it.”
“In what way is your religion better than ours?”
“We are taught not to kill, not to steal, not to say lies. . . .”
“Who will support your children when you are sent to prison?”
“My wife . . . and God.”
Ziva Jevremov, Steva Uliki, Steva Popadic and the other men follow. Their trial is short. They stand in a row when the sentence is read to them. For the first offence--military disobedience--every one gets nine years in a hard labour camp. For the second offence--belonging to a forbidden religion--everyone gets another year.
No one is surprised. The men’s faces do not change. The judge tells them to consider well what they have done and promises immediate remission of the sentence to anyone who changes his mind.
Ziva Jevremov shakes his head sadly but says with a smile: “We cannot do it. We thank you for the sentence.”
They lead the condemned, closely guarded, back into the prison car. Everyone is silent, earnest. The face of the man with seven children is white. He blinks hard. Then the door is locked behind them and they disappear in direction of the military jail.
Who were these people and what brought them to their remarkable position? The more Gjorgje learned of them the deeper his respect and involvement grew.
From all over the Vojvodina and Obrenovcez districts they came. Some towns, like Kisac and Kovacice, seemed to consist almost exclusively of “Nazarenes” (as they chose to call themselves because of Acts 24:5). Authorities reported thousands more in Srem-Mitrovica, Petrovardin, Staribicej, Vincovce, Pancevo, Veliki-Bekerek . . . perhaps as many as twenty thousand of them and others suspected there were twice that many in Serbia, or more.
The one thing certain was that Nazarenes would not obey the government’s orders to take up arms.
In the villages they seemed like simple, harmless, people. Their sect, it was said, had begun in Switzerland where people called them Anabaptists. But these were Serbs and Magyars (Hungarians) who met for worship in unadorned meetinghouses, singing without instruments from a book called “Zion’s Harp.” Their women wore head coverings and ample skirts. Their large families grew up learning how to work . . . and now the prisons at Petrovardin and Veliki-Bekerek were full of them.
Nothing frightened the Nazarenes into complying with government orders if they found them contrary to what they believed. After the conscription laws tightened in 1924, military commanders fettered some of the men and marched them in chains through the villages. That did not move them. One officer told their neighbours: “Kill the Nazarenes, rob them of everything, burn down their houses, do not buy anything from them. If you do this, nothing will happen to you.” But their neighbours liked them and the Nazarenes neither tried to defend themselves nor changed their minds.
Serbian officials closed Nazarene meetinghouses and forbade them to hold services. Some took children by force from the villages and had them baptised into the Orthodox church. All the Nazarenes did was apply for passports to emigrate. A small percentage received them and found their way to Canada and Argentina. Of the rest, 1400 were now in jail.
In a second report for the Belgrade Politika, Gjorgje Nikolic wrote:
Nineteen men reporting for duty to the 34’th regiment of the Tisa division take their place in the courtyard at noon. Rifles are brought and the commander of the regiment addresses one of the recruits, Dusan Gruic:
“I have ordered you to report for military duty. Now you must take up arms and participate in military exercises. Once you have fulfilled your obligations and served your time you may go home. Consider carefully before you answer. Put yourself into the position of those who depend on you, your parents, your wife and your children.”
Dusan answers: “Whoever binds himself to his weapon binds himself to do with it what weapons are for. But I cannot do that.”
“Who forbids you to do so?”
“God. God has given us his Holy Word so that we can shape our lives according to it.”
“But if you refuse to take up arms you will go to prison. Every capable citizen must serve in the army.”
The commander orders paragraph 47 of the military penal code read in a loud voice: “Whoever shows by word or deed or any other sign that he does not wish to carry out the orders of his superiors, and whoever does not comply with them, is to be punished for insubordination. If the offence is committed in private he is to be punished with a minimum of one year in jail. But if it takes place before the assembled soldiers, with a minimum of five years. However, if it happens before a military line, or if the order is given to take up arms and he refuses, he is to be punished with prison up to ten years.”
“Now consider,” the commander says, “This paragraph states directly, ‘up to ten years in prison.’” Do you want to wear iron on your feet that long?”
Stevan Ivanic speaks up from one of lines: “I have this to say, Lieutenant Colonel, in regards to your mention of our children. We abide by the words of Christ. Christ said, ‘He who loves his father, his mother, his sister, or his wife more than he loves me, is not worthy of me.’ For his sake I am prepared to leave my wife and family.”
“Dusan Gruic, advance!” the commander shouts. Turning to a soldier who holds a gun in his hands, he says, “Give him this gun.”
The soldier offers it to Dusan, saying: “Take it.”
“I can’t,” says the latter. “I am not permitted to bind myself to this gun!”
“Certainly you don’t need to marry the gun!” the commander exclaims.
“If I accept it, I will be married to it!”
“Does that mean you will not take the gun?”
“I am not permitted to do so.”
“Konstantin Naumovic!” The officer calls up another man who steps from the ranks. The soldier holds out the gun to him and asks him to take it.
“Sirs, I am not permitted to do it,” he says, turning to the commanding officer.
“Are you not permitted or do you not want to?”
“I am not permitted to do it. I live in the fear of God.”
“Paja Alarcic!” the commanding officer calls. Paja steps forward but does not raise his hand to take the gun.
“Who prevents you from doing it?”
“I am not permitted by the Word of God.”
“Branko Purac . . .”
“I cannot accept it,” Branko answers with a smile. “If I would take the gun I would have to do with it what guns are for. Guns are to kill people.”
“But we do not give you the gun to kill people now. You are only to practise with it for a time, then you may go home,” the commanding officer assures him.
“To practise is to learn how to kill.”
“Stevo Stelovic!” The officer calls an exceptionally tall and strong Nazarene who shrugs his shoulders. “I cannot do it.”
“Of course you can,” the commanding officer shouts. “Just look at how big you are.”
“I am able to carry ten such guns or more,” Stevo answers, “but what I believe does not permit me to do it.”
Stevo Ivanic steps from the ranks.
“You take it,” the commanding officer says to him.
“I cannot do it,” he answers with a smile. “I have believed this way since I was a child. I have been imprisoned by the Magyars and I shall no doubt see prison again. All this has passed over my head before, but ‘he who endures to the end of the struggle will be saved.’ What shall I do? Christ said, ‘Love your enemies and those who hate you.’ He also said, ‘If a man smites you on one cheek, turn to him the other as well. In the Old Testament it is written, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, If someone tears out one of your eyes, offer him the other also.’ This is the issue, Sir.”
The recruit smiles again and returns to his place in the ranks.
A blond youth steps forward: Petar Hugyos.
“Are you Hungarian?” the commanding officer asks.
“No Sir, I am Russian.”
“Well, take the gun whatever the case,” the officer tells him. “It would be a pity for you to go to jail. You are so young.”
“I cannot do it.”
“How many years have you belonged to this sect?”
“I joined at the age of fifteen.”
“How old are you now?”
Paja Opra, another youth, advances calmly when called. “Go ahead, take it Paja,” the officer says.
“Sir, I cannot do your military duty, so why should I take the gun?”
“You mean to tell me you will do no one’s duty but your own?”
Paja just smiles and returns to his place in the ranks.
The scene repeats itself over and over with Milan Naumov, Petar Svicav, Milos Bakalski, Danilo Stojkov, Sandor Popov, Vlada Kocanti, Milos Antic, Zdravko Tutin, Danilo Alardzic, Milorad Zoric, Kuzman Pavlovic. . . .
In a later report Gjorgji described the trial of Ljuba, the young son of the Nazarene leader Milan Duroslovac. He described him as a “tall, friendly youth who looked calmly at everyone and smiled when someone joked about his appearance in court.” Ljuba, according to his report, took the reading of his sentence calmly. But much happened behind the scenes that Gjorgji knew nothing of.
A commandant told the Nazarene recruit, Paja Tordaji, to take a gun. When he refused, he struck him in the face and ordered ten rifles hung around his neck. Then they forced him to stay standing, choking for air, in a storeroom at the military base. Other recruits they beat until bloody from head to foot. They pricked the hands of some with bayonets and forced others to lie on nails. But harrassed in the barracks or suffering in labour camps the brothers proved themselves good soldiers for Christ. In a letter signed by 150 recruits in the prison at Petrovardin, they wrote to believers in Switzerland:
Beloved brothers and sisters,
As the almighty God, our heavenly Father, has preserved us from the beginning to the present time, we believe he will keep us in the future as well.
They arrested us on the third day after calling us to arms. They did so because we could not carry guns nor swear oaths. Then they locked us into a low, narrow, dirty room with a wet floor. We wondered what will become of us, and were sad, until a brother began to sing:
We thank you faithful Saviour, that you have not forsaken us to wander, Like unprotected orphans on unfamiliar paths, Among strange people in strange lands, Where our language is not known and our actions look foolish. No, we do not stand like orphans! You stand with us, and live in our midst!
After this hymn, the word of the Saviour came to our minds: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Then some officers came to us wondering why we sang and what kind of people we are.
Afterwards they brought us to Petrovardin into the prison, where they have kept us to this day. As many as 34 men occupy one room. At first we had to sleep on the bare boards, but now conditions have somewhat improved.
On the Lord’s Day we have meetings in the morning and in the afternoon, and during the week we meet three times--on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday evening, always in separate groups, Serbs and Magyars, because the room is not large enough. There in the meeting we go to the Living Fountain that quenches our thirst. There we find the living bread and know that he who eats of it will live forever.
What is it that makes us faithful unto death? It is love. The love of Jesus like we sing:
Jesus, you remain with me, Nothing else compares with you! I cannot be quiet about you. Loves drives me to [sing and speak]. Love that gives itself to you. Love that loves you only.
Love that binds itself to you, and finds its peace in you alone.
Perhaps Gjorgji Nikolic wrote more about the Nazarenes’ struggle with military conscription in Serbia. Perhaps he did not. After Serbia became part of Yugoslavia under a royal dictatorship, and civil war broke out in 1929, a dark curtain fell on what had been the peaceful villages of the Nazarenes in Vojvodina and Obrenovcez. The country fell to the Nazis and to Italy in World War II. We know little of what took place in terrible fighting that followed between invading armies and Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Slovenes who fought savagely among themselves. Gjorgji’s articles (that survived the war) are rare glimpses into the lives of people whose story on earth ended in bombing attacks, rolling clouds of smoke, and untold numbers in silent mass graves.
But the peace of which they sang, lives on in the body of Christ.
Main Source: Stäubli C., Die Nazarener in Jugoslavien, Pfäffikon-Zürich, 1928
from the Rocky Cape Community online collection