Croatian church leader Mladen Jovanovic dies at 68
Mladen Jovanovic (PHOTO PROVIDED) Mladen Jovanovic, longtime church leader in…
Three members of a Church of Christ in Belgrade, Serbia, are recovering from stab wounds inflicted by a fellow church member just before Sunday worship.
But damage to the Central European congregation goes far beyond the bloodshed.
“The physical and emotional trauma is real, but it’s just the beginning,” said Gary Jackson, who helped plant the church in the mid-1980s. Ministers including Mladen Jovanovic of Croatia made visits and conducted seminars in the early days of the Belgrade church.
Most of the 6.9 million people who live in Serbia identify as Eastern Orthodox, and Churches of Christ are classified as a “sect,” Jackson said.
The congregation has lost its meeting place since the attack, and Serbian media have characterized the church as a “new religious organization” that is “gathering sick people in order to manipulate them,” said Goran Zarubica, a church elder who was injured in the attack.
For the past three decades, the congregation has helped refugees and people who struggle with addictions and mental illness, said Zarubica, who serves as national coordinator for Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse.
The attacker, Ilija Novakovic, had worshiped with the congregation for seven years.
“He had mental problems during his youth,” Zarubica said, “and was brought to church on the recommendation of people we know, with information that he lacks love and friendship.”
Although Novakovic had experienced conflicts at home and at work, he showed no signs of violence toward church members, Zarubica said. The day before the attack, church members spent more than two hours with Novakovic, praying that God would help him overcome his struggles.
The next day, Sept. 4, the church planned to eat lunch together after worship and distribute what was left to people in need. But before the service began Novakovic entered the building with an 11-inch military-style knife and “went after the people that had helped him the most,” Jackson said, “the leaders who had been the ones to embrace him.”
Zarubica was stabbed in the chest and ruptured his Achilles tendon as he struggled with the attacker. Another church member was stabbed in the arm. The worst injuries were suffered by Alberto Dias, who was stabbed twice in the stomach and arm as he and his fellow church members subdued Novakovic, who was arrested by police. Four hours later, after police had investigated and cleared the scene, the church members took the Lord’s Supper and prayed for Novakovic.
“No one hates him,” said Zarubica, who underwent surgery to repair his tendon, “and everyone is sorry for the damage he caused to the church and the physical injuries to the brothers.”
Dias spent a week in the hospital and underwent two surgeries. A native of the African nation of Guinea-Bissau, he has been a steadfast member of the congregation for nearly three decades, Jackson said. Dias is now recovering at home but faces medical bills in excess of $6,500.
Jackson, now an instructor of missions at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., helped to launch a support fund for Dias through the Garden Ridge Church of Christ in Lewisville, Texas.
After the attack, as church members anxiously waited for ambulances to arrive, some expressed concern that Dias would bleed to death, Zarubica said.
Dias replied: “My wounds are nothing compared to what Christ suffered for me. If this is because of him, I don’t mind dying.”
The church has found a small, temporary meeting place, Jackson said. Meanwhile, the congregation has endured unwanted media attention and accusations of manipulation, alcoholism and operating without a license. The church has been legally registered in Serbia for nearly 40 years, Zarubica said.
“It’s hard,” the church elder said of enduring the attacks, “even though we know that it is not because of us but because of Christ.”
FUNDS FOR ALBERTO DIAS’ medical bills may be sent to Garden Ridge Church of Christ, 102 N. Garden Ridge, Lewisville, TX 75067. Note checks for “Belgrade Church.” Funds may be sent through Cashapp to $4Gospod.
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