What are Muslims’ greatest struggles in Eastern Europe?
What is God doing among Muslims in Eastern Europe?
Eastern Europe includes both historic Muslim communities as well as recently arrived Muslim refugees. Islam first came in conquering waves. Mongol invaders in the 13th century had adopted Islam following their conquests. Next came the conquest of Muslim Tatars. Finally, the Ottomans occupied most of Eastern Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries.
After the decisive defeat of the Ottoman Turks in Vienna in 1683, Islam entered a two-century retreat, with waves of converted Europeans leaving with the retreating Turks.
Remaining Muslim communities have survived in Kosovo (95%), Albania (55%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (51%), North Macedonia (33%), Montenegro (20%), Bulgaria (11%), Latvia (7.7%), and Slovenia (3.8%). For the remainder of Eastern Europe – not counting Russia – the percentage of Muslims is mostly less than 1%.
The majority are Sunni, and are cultural, conservative, or even secular Muslims. Some 20% favor Sharia law and prefer to live in Muslim-majority communities.
Recently arrived Muslim refugees are generally not welcomed by Eastern Europeans. Initially they used Eastern Europe as the passage-way to Western Europe, but once Western Europe reached refugee saturation levels, European Union agencies asked Eastern European nations to accept national refugee quotas. Those requests were firmly rejected.
Muslims in Eastern Europe are either visible minorities or small Muslim-majority nations in a larger historical Christian continent. During the cold war era, Eastern European Muslims played no significant role in nationalistic or ideological movements.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the inter-ethnic tensions in the Balkan regions led to violent fragmentation around national-religious identities. Muslims were attacked by Serbs or Croats and they sometimes counter-attacked. Massacres followed, mostly of Muslims.
Islamists poured money, arms, and militant doctrine into this conflict. As a result, extremism grew among many Balkan Muslims. Though they gained significant territory in Kosovo, Muslims suffered the most.
The third Balkan war (1992-1995) involved horrific massacres, rape, destruction of sacred sites, creation of concentration camps, and vengeance attacks, leading to a major refugee crisis. Muslims fled everywhere within Europe, often to economically deprived sections of larger cities where other people from their ethnicity had already relocated.
Evangelicals are a smaller minority than Muslims in Eastern Europe, and very few of their churches have launched ministries among Muslims. However, those who do so, in cooperation with global mission agencies, have seen encouraging growth among asylum seekers, especially in refugee camps in Lesbos and other parts of Greece.
The most fruitful access comes through discipleship classes, English classes, relationship-building, and hospitality. Language barriers, constant relocation, and threats from other Afghan, Iranian, Kurdish, or Syrian refugees are daily hindrances.
Memories impede ministries. The atrocious genocides of orthodox Christians and Armenians by the Ottomans are not forgotten a century later. Christians, too, have retaliated in massacres of nearby Muslims.
The greatest need is forgiveness over the bloody past – both giving and receiving – leading to reconciliation. Eastern European Christians carry memories of centuries of suffering from Muslim oppressors. The recent Balkan War has opened old wounds. Much healing is needed.