“Tortured for His Faith” by Haralan Popov is a harrowing yet uplifting account of a Bulgarian pastor’s 13-year imprisonment and torture in Communist prisons and concentration camps for proclaiming Christ.
Popov’s legacy was one of the most notorious cases of religious persecution in post-WWII Europe. In this autobiographical account, Popov discusses how the kindness of a Baptist friend in pre-Communist Bulgaria led the young atheist to a curiosity about his faith and ultimately his conversion. In 1929, the 22-year-old Popov left for Bible college in England, and returned to Bulgaria with a Swedish wife to serve as pastor, for 16 years, at the largest church in the nation.
In 1944, what Popov describes as a “dark menace” took power. He writes:
“The Communists slowly gained power while our country was lying prostrate at the feet of the Red Army. At first the Communist Party was most cooperative with other political parties and even formed a coalition government. In three years, the other parties were banned, their leaders imprisoned, and the Communist Party was in full control. We had heard of our fellow Christians in Russia and what they had suffered, but little did we know that Bulgaria would become so like Russia it would be called “Little Russia.”
For three years, from 1944-1947, the Christians of Bulgaria evangelized day and night to spread the Gospel and build up the faith of the believers, expecting the boon to fall at any moment. “Undoubtedly,” he writes, “our feverish work for Christ during this three years “before the storm” caused us to be singled out for the “special” treatment which was to follow in communist prisons. The very intensity of our work during the “calm before the storm” made us marked men. We didn’t have long. As soon as the Communists had consolidated their power we knew it would be our time.”
Popov’s time came at 4:00 am on July 24, 1948. A daily routine of interrogation, beating, psychological and physical torture began for one of many pastors accused of being “spies” and “instruments of imperialism”. Afraid of public outcry if the real reason for their imprisonment were known, the government had started a vicious propaganda campaign while systematically replacing Bible-preaching pastors with their own state agents in the pulpits.
For several weeks, the pastor was brutally beaten, starved, and forced to stand motionless staring point-blank at a shiny white wall for days at a time. Popov describes the tenth day of this torture:
“Still the collapse didn’t come. I lost all track of time. One day blurred into another. My swollen legs became huge, engorged with blood from complete immobility. My lips were cracked wide open and bleeding. My beard was long, for I had not been allowed to wash nor shave since the day I was arrested. My eyes were balls of fire. Yet, somehow I stood. On the tenth night, sometime after midnight I heard my interrogator snoring as he dozed off. I moved my stiff neck to the right and to the left. Off to the left about six feet away there was a window. Since it was dark outside I could see a reflection in the window, like a mirror. I recoiled in horror. It was a monster’s reflection! I saw a horrible emaciated figure, legs swollen, eyes like empty holes in the head, with a long beard covered with dried blood from cracked, bleeding and hideously swollen lips.
It was a grotesque, horrible figure. I was repulsed by it.
Suddenly, it struck me. That horrible, bleeding grotesque figure was me! That “monster” was me.
My numbed mind slowly absorbed this fact and tears came into my eyes. Suddenly, I felt crushed, so alone, so by myself. I felt as Christ must have when He cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I couldn’t weep tears, but my body heaved with unwept tears. Then, in that moment of total, crushing hopelessness, I heard a voice as clear and distinct as any voice I have ever heard in my life. It said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you…” It was so audible I dared to glance at my dozing interrogator, certain he had heard it, too, but he slept on.
The presence of God filled the Punishment Cell and enveloped me in a divine warmth, infusing strength into the shell that was my body”.
At this point, Popov’s ordeal was only beginning. In 1949, after many months in prison suffering sub-human treatment and inconceivable humiliation, he and 12 other Protestant pastors were condemned as spies in a travesty of justice known as “The Pastors’ Trial of 1949“. The interrogators used every conceivable means to break the men and extort false confessions from them, and succeeded in breaking several. Neither Popov nor his brother Ladin would confess to the false charges of espionage in return for a lighter sentence, preferring to die in prison if necessary. They refused to dishonor their Saviour.
For years, the prison administrators tried various tactics to force Popov to renounce his faith in Christ and embrace Communism, to no avail. One of the pastor’s favorite methods were the writing assignments his captors gave him, designed to brainwash him into accepting Marxism as ideologically superior. They also demanded essays meticulously detailing past events in Popov’s life, in order to obtain information on other “social menaces”. Popov effectively turned the tables on them by managing to work the Gospel message into each and every essay he produced for his captors. It became a daily hobby as a stack of paper was thrust into his hands to think of new and inventive ways of evangelizing to the warden. By the time Popov had produced about 2,000 handwritten pages, the prison officials finally tired of this “game” and decided Popov was unredeemable. “I often wonder,” he reflects in his memoir, “how many Communists my message reached.”
In 1952, the pastor was sent by boxcar with hundreds of other political and religious prisoners to a slave labor camp located on the island of Persin in the Danube. Deliberately left in freezing temperatures as punishments from the guards, many men froze to death, some dying in Pastor Popov’s arms. He describes the screams of a starving prisoner being savagely beaten to death by guards for killing a wild rabbit to eat. Of the six thousand prisoners at Persin, only a few hundred survived.
Popov led other prisoners to Christ over the course of his 13-year captivity, at times by tapping out messages between cells. Laboring in a stone quarry, he used 22-pound sledge hamers to break up huge rocks – and started up a Bible class at the quarry barracks, right under the noses of the guards. Popov quips, “Even the ever-present informer evidently didn’t report me. I could only conclude that he was enjoying the Bible classes, too.” In solitary confinement, he prayed continuously for his tormentors, steadfastly refusing to hate them. Lashed by a guard for not running fast enough, he thought of Jesus being beaten and prayed, “Lord, help me to bear it for Your Name’s sake!” When he was finally released from prison, in 1961, his brother explained that he had just passed from a smaller prison into a bigger one. The entire nation had become a police state.
In a chapter entitled “Church Spies Spying on Spies”, Popov describes the state of the underground church juxtaposed with congregations reduced from several hundred members to fewer than two dozen. “A police apparatus of total control had reached it’s octopus-like tentacles around the churches in a deadly embrace,” he writes. Pastors who were “uncooperative” with the state-run strangulation were replaced with puppets of the state who preached no gospel but Communism, attempting to white-wash the evil, atheistic philosophy with humanistic, high-sounding pep talks. The net result would be an undiscerning population unable to distinguish Lenin from Christ. Destroying the church outright would produce Christian martyrs, which would have been detrimental to the Communist agenda. Subtly undermining the Gospel and exerting control over believers was a far more insidious and evil design.
Popov’s illustration of the social situation and political agenda gives his story depth and context. Understood against the backdrop of hard-line Communism, the methods of interrogation and systematic indoctrination he endured make sense. The danger of the slightest compromise, no matter how easy it might have been to rationalize away in a moment of torture, opens the door to much bigger crises of conscience – and not all in his position were able to pass the test. Popov’s is a testimony to an extraordinarily strong faith in God, not only for salvation, but in His power to sustain. Likewise, even given the unbelievable amount of torment he endured, Popov was able not only to refrain from hating his captors, but even to feel compassion for them as ones completely lost in their sin. He noted often that there is no bottom to the depths a human being can sink in utter depravity without Christ. Facing the epitome of evil, he felt sorry for the soul he saw as being used of Satan.
Much like “Voice of the Martyrs” founder Richard Wurmbrand’s “Tortured for Christ”, Popov writes a detailed account of similar circumstances in the propaganda machine that post WWII Eastern Europe had become. (Wurmbrand was a Lutheran pastor from Romania). While not quite as graphic as Wurmbrand’s account in it’s description of physical brutality, Popov actually does a better job at explaining the reasoning and tactics behind the psychological mind-games and brainwashing of the Secret Police. Rather than simply condemning them outright for what his Western audience already knew was an insidiously evil social system, Popov draws the reader in by explaining how each leading question was baited in an interrogation; how a simple seminary course description could be twisted to sound sinister in the hands of a skilled propagandist; why the government chose to bide time and systematically destroy the church from within rather than closing them by force.
Written a few years after his release, (the edition I have was published in 1970, although an earlier edition was published in 1967 under the name “Torture and Triumph in a Communist Prison”), the book shows an uncanny recollection of seemingly mundane detail. Transcripts from court hearings could be produced, (at least in theory), but how could Popov remember that he killed exactly 539 bedbugs on his first night in prison? Detailed inventories of seemingly endless days, all with dates, reveal either a photographic memory on the part of Popov or possible embellishment while reconstructing his story.
Also notable, Popov never once mentions or alludes to the fact that he was a Pentecostal pastor. In fact, based on his early pre-and post-conversion attendance at a Baptist church in Russe (and his continuous identification with the “Evangelical” church), the reader would logically conclude that he was a Baptist. Nowhere in the book does he discuss sign gifts or argue for continuationism; and his faith was clearly not based on esoteric experience. If anything, Popov’s ultimately triumphant ordeal demonstrates the fallacy of superficial faith based on experience or emotionalism – true roots are needed. His is a story sorely-needed by lukewarm believers today that demonstrates the depth of selfless commitment Christ expects of His true followers. His courage and commitment, given him by the Holy Spirit, was truly remarkable. Looking back on his own thoughts as he neared his release date, Popov wrote,
“I knew that men I had never laid eyes on were serving Christ because I had the opportunity of “tapping” the Gospel to them. I don’t label myself a hero or martyr, but as I neared my release and looked back I could honestly and truthfully say that it was worth those 13 years of torture, beatings, starvation, suffering and separation from loved ones to be a “pastor” to the thousands of Communist prisoners my path had crossed.”
In 1972, Popov founded “Door of Hope International” to help the Underground Church in Eastern Europe and smuggle Bibles (banned by the Communists) behind the Iron Curtain. Nowadays, youth leadership and humanitarian aid is more of the organization’s focus in these same countries. Pastor Popov passed away in 1988, and his son Paul (asleep in his crib the night his father was taken away) now heads the ministry, which has expanded it’s mission to help the persecuted church in Asian and African countries as well.