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STRANDED IN ISTANBUL
By Samuel E. Ericsson
When I reviewed my journal from the February visits to Israel, Albania, Turkey, Bulgaria and England, I counted 55 special stories. Let me share a few that underscore my belief that there is an Author of His-story.
STRANDED IN ISTANBUL: It was pouring rain Thursday morning as the driver took me to the airport in Tirana, Albania, and I was concerned that the Albanian Airlines flight might be delayed. When we took off forty minutes behind schedule for Istanbul, Turkey, I knew it would be a tight fit making connections to Sofia, Bulgaria. As we pulled into the gate at Istanbul's huge airport, I saw the Balkan Airlines plane depart for Bulgaria without me. I have had so many unusual experiences because of delayed flights over the past decade that I immediately began anticipating what might be in store this time.
I hustled to Istanbul's airport information counter and told them that I had to be in Sofia by the next morning. They informed me that the next flight would not leave until 5:00PM the next day. When I heard this news, a thirty-something Ivy League American standing next to me asked, "Did you miss the flight to Sofia, too?" When I said that I had, he indicated that he also had meetings the next day in Sofia. I reached out my hand and introduced myself, "I'm Sam Ericsson." His jaw dropped, "Sam Ericsson! Last night at 10:20PM, I had a telephone conversation with an American lawyer whom I had never met before, and he told me `You must meet Sam Ericsson.'" And there we were, both stranded in Istanbul.
It turns out that Jim has degrees from both Harvard and Yale. His father is a pastor in Chicago. Jim has spent the past 2 ½ years in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia directing a program seeking to reconcile major religious groups in the region: Moslems, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. He has had little success in establishing contacts with either the evangelical or Protestant communities. In sum, Jim and I have been working on many of the same issues in the Balkans unaware of each other's existence.
With the help of a young airport Courtesy Patrol employee, we got our baggage and climbed into a small taxi that took us to the Bulgarian border 90 miles away. At the border, we had to find another driver willing to make the nine-hour drive to Sofia. We finally got a large, gruff-looking Turk who agreed to drive us for $300. After we put our suitcases in the trunk and climbed into the back seat, Jim and I became a bit concerned when the driver took off full-speed back towards Istanbul rather than towards Sofia. My protest, "This is big problem. This is BIG problem," fell on deaf ears. He spoke no English. It turned out that his night vision was so poor that he wanted another driver to go with him. The other driver didn't speak a word of English either, but it was good that he was the driver. His better eyesight was needed as we careened on narrow roads through Bulgarian villages with rain, snow and fog making visibility marginal. I called ahead to Sofia on Jim's cell phone to alert them to our problem and gave them the Turkish taxi license plate numbers --- just in case.
For the next nine hours, Jim and I sat crunched in the back seat of the yellow Turkish taxi. For a week, I had been wrestling with the flu and aching muscles, a fever and cough, red-eye in my left eye and a charley horse in my left leg. But with Jim as a companion it was a great trip! When we parted in Sofia at 2:00AM, we were brothers in the battle and good friends. Both of us understood that Someone had delayed our flights to Istanbul.
LOST BAGGAGE IN TEL AVIV: The February trip had begun with a flight from Washington, DC to London and then on to Tel Aviv, Israel. On the first leg of my trip, British Airways misplaced one of my two checked bags. Fortunately, the bag had nothing I needed in Israel. British Airways gave me a 300-shekel gift certificate ($75) for the trouble, and I left Israel with a nice sweater and shirt I bought on sale on Mt. Carmel.
HISTORIC MEETINGS ON MT. CARMEL: One of my favorite Old Testament stories is Elijah's "cook off" with the 850 false prophets on Mt. Carmel. In mid-February, I paid my first visit to Mt. Carmel to participate with Peacemaker Ministries in their first conflict resolution seminar in Israel. Together with PM's Gary Friesen, and our Board member John Johnson, we were able to teach 45 Arab Christians and Messianic Jews about Biblical conflict resolution. It was so well received that plans are under way for a much larger seminar for the leaders of the 3,000 Messianic Jews and the 100,000 Arab Christians in Israel. Our "innkeeper" alumni from the 1999 Convocation, Marvin Kramer and Botrus Mansour, helped organize the meetings.
ISRAEL'S FIRST CHRISTIAN LAWYER GATHERING AND THE EMPTY CHAIR: In the City of Nazareth, we had the privilege of participating in the first-known gathering of Christian lawyers in Israel. There were seven Arab Christians, one Messianic Jew, Gary, John and myself --- eleven in all. There were twelve chairs around the table and, pointing to the empty chair, I noted that it was occupied by our Chief Client who was in the room with us. I then shared on "The Marks of a Christian Lawyer":
L - loves God by acknowledging His presence in the details of life
A- available to help those in need who come across our path
W-- walks the talk by turning beliefs to action
Y- yields time, talent and treasure expecting nothing in return
E- example to others
R- reproduces self.
It was a historic gathering as we encouraged the lawyers to be salt and light in their profession in a culture that is very secular and hostile to Christians. Pray for them.
SPEAKING IN NAZARETH: The following day, I spoke in the Sunday morning service at the First Baptist Church in Nazareth to about 200 Arab Christians with Botrus serving as my translator. What a thrill to speak in the town where Jesus grew up! The text was the Good Samaritan passage and the theme was "Caring for God's Nobody's." To be an Arab in Israel often means you feel like a Nobody. To be a Christian in Israel is to be a Nobody. To be an Arab Christian in Israel is often a double Nobody.
THE SUPREME COURT IN ALBANIA: After Israel, I flew to Albania by way of Athens, Greece. Chief Justice Thimio Kondi and Justice Ylvi Myrtja met me at the airport. Advocates first met the Chief Justice in 1993 when he was a member of the old Court of Cassation and helped organize our first National Judicial Conference. He has been our guest in the U.S. on several visits and has become a close friend of Advocates. Ylvi was almost blind in 1996 when we arranged for him to have laser surgery in the U.S. He went home with 20/20 vision. It's always a joy to see Ylvi see!
Over dinner with five members of the Supreme Court we discussed plans for the Fourth National Judicial Conference this summer. Our hope is that a U.S. Supreme Court Justice will accept Chief Justice Kondi's invitation to participate. Please pray for this conference.
We have an ongoing need in Albania for judicial robes. In 1994, in truly miraculous fashion, we were able to bring 180 black Presbyterian choir robes to Albania and "convert" them to judicial robes. Chief Justice Kondi said they need about 200 robes. If your church or denomination has black choir robes to share, Advocates can put them to use.
A SURPRISE VISITOR FROM LONDON: The morning after arriving in Tirana, I met John Quanrud, an American friend living in London who had served as a missionary in Tirana for most of the 1990's. John arrived from London the same evening I came in from Israel. He informed me that there was a new "Chief of the Committee of the Cults" for Albania who was educated in Algeria and spent the past five years serving as the translator for the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Needless to say, we were concerned about the man's orientation. At a meeting with the Chief, he informed John and me that Albania needs a "law on religious communities" to protect Albanians from "strange" Western religions.
REAPING FROM WORK SOWN SEVEN YEARS AGO: When I heard his plans, I recalled a similar situation in September, 1992, when the Albanian Parliament proposed a "Law on Religious Communities." A governing four-member committee composed of two Moslems, one Catholic and one Orthodox would review applications for the right of all other religious groups to exist in Albania. It was a stacked deck.
In October, 1992, I faxed a letter to then-President Berisha (whom I had met the previous month because a delayed flight in New York triggered a series of events leading up to our meeting) expressing concern and offering to help draft a law that would conform to European religious freedom standards. He accepted my offer, and the bad law was withdrawn. I flew to Albania for a week in December, 1992, and worked with the Prime Minister's advisor and others on a suitable approach. Although the draft was never adopted, the 1992 threat passed without incident --- until resurrected in February, 2000. By that time, I had destroyed all the copies in my files.
"Co/incidentally", John Quanrud had brought my December, 1992 draft with him from London not knowing that I would be in Albania! We were thus able to provide copies in Albanian to key government officials who all agreed that the new Constitution (which Advocates had a role in fine-tuning) was adequate. If a new law is needed, however, then the 1992 draft will be a good starting point. Sometimes we work on projects that seem to die on the shelf. Often it's simply a matter of His timing. It is exciting to reap seven years after sowing.
We had several strategic meetings with key officials in Albania. There is no doubt that on religious freedom Albania has the most "level playing field" of any nation in the Balkans. No country has made more progress. Advocates' eight years of work in this small nation are paying off for justice, religious freedom, reconciliation and ethics.
ADDRESSING A LAW ON RELIGION IN BULGARIA:After my nine-hour cab ride with Jim from Istanbul to Sofia, the Director of our Rule of Law Institute, Latcho Popov, met me at 2:00AM. The next day we met with Bulgaria's key evangelical leaders, as well as with the Director of Religious Affairs, Mr. Mldanov, with whom we have a good working relationship. Our meeting was very productive and reassuring as we discussed a law on religion that Parliament is considering, which has caused deep concern among evangelicals.
Latcho had also arranged a press conference for me with Bulgarian TV, radio and journalists. The hour-long conference went extremely well, and the media reports that evening and the next day were accurate and fair. Latcho and I met with the key Parliamentarian on the law who invited us to submit comments, which we will do this month. On Sunday, I had the privilege of giving the message at Sofia's First Evangelical Congregational Church, which the communists had confiscated in the 1980's and Advocates was instrumental in getting returned to its rightful owners in 1994. What a joy!
WHERE IS A SOFIA REAL ESTATE APPRAISER WHEN YOU NEED ONE? Five years ago, we signed a lease on office space in Sofia for our Rule of Law Institute. At the time we had only five Christian lawyers. Today the network is over 110 strong and may be the largest active network of Christian lawyers on the continent. The existing space is no longer adequate, and the rent may soon double. I asked Latcho to watch out for something to buy so that we would be able to avoid paying rent for the next ten years.
This week Latcho sent an e-mail describing a place twice our current size in a good part of town. Since I did not know whether the price was good, I told Latcho that we needed a few days to think and pray. Two days later, our new Liaison to the United Nations, Bulgaria's former UN Ambassador Slavi Pachovski, drove from New York to our office. When I told him about the space in Sofia, he told me that he and his wife own an apartment three doors over from the building we are considering! He thinks the price is good. It's not everyday someone walks into your office with an expert opinion about the value of real estate you are about to buy half-way around the world!
From beginning to end, the February trip confirmed the importance of living beyond belief. When we move beyond what we believe to acting on our beliefs, God will do the unbelievable --even when we are left stranded in Istanbul!