HARALAN POPOV (1907- 1988): PASTOR
Sofia, Bulgaria, July 24, 1948. Four am.
Haralan Popov and his wife Ruth were awakened by an impatient ringing of the doorbell. Three men, two in police uniforms. “We have come to search your house.” After three hours of searching they take Haralan away for “a little questioning.” The interrogation led to thirteen years of imprisonment and torture, his crime being his love for the Lord Jesus Christ and the propagation of the gospel.
Their young child Rhoda could not be consoled. “They’re taking Daddy! They’re taking Daddy!” She would be a young woman before she saw him again, a man aged far beyond his years. Baby Paul slept through it all. Ruth fell to her knees, asking the Lord to bring her husband back home.
At the police station he was brought to a filthy cell, an old clay pot in the corner was the toilet. It stunk bad. The “little questioning” began at 8 pm and lasted 12 hours. They wanted a confession for the crime of espionage with the West. He was forced to stand exactly eight inches from a white wall, eyes wide open, and they screamed at him if he shut his eyes. The long night over, he fell to his bed. Bedbugs and lice and vermin soon covered his body so he had to pace his cell to keep them off. They gave him only enough food to keep him alive. The nightly interrogation and torture went on for a week, and because of long hours of standing in front of the wall, the blood settled in his legs causing them to swell.
Then the Black Raven, a police car, took him to the dreaded White House (nicknamed after the American White House), the headquarters of the Secret Police. Here, most who entered would never leave. Many levels of cells went deep underground and occasionally muffled screams of tortured men could be heard in the streets above. Fear gripped Haralan as he was being led to cell 21, and he breathed a prayer, “God, my life is in Your hands.” Fear left, peace came. His heart was filled with praise and worship to God.
Same smelly bucket. Walls painted with blood of dead bedbugs. Slogans and prayers and Bible verses inscribed on the walls by former prisoners. Daily diet of two slices of bread and six tablespoons of slimy soup. A sound resembling a rifle shot every ten minutes throughout the night. Guards with faces defying description, long ago having sunk to animal state. Standing motionless, eyes wide open, eight inches in front of a wall painted with high gloss enameled white paint. A fist to the head when the interrogator didn’t get the answer he wanted.
Burning eyes, swelled legs, unbelievable fatigue. Hunger and deep thirst accentuated by the sound of the interrogator’s munching of food and drinking water. Hallucinations. Spots on the wall came alive. A mad kaleidoscope of colors. Fear of going insane.
After ten days Haralan heard the snoring of a guard and dared to stretch a little. Turning his neck he saw an old man in a nearby window who had the appearance of a monster. It repulsed him. Realizing he was the monster, he wept. Alone and hopeless.
And then the audible voice of Jesus, “I will never leave you or forsake you…” and the presence of God filled the punishment cell, infusing him with strength and warmth and joy. The guard awoke with a jolt. Something had happened, but what? He ran to get another guard and together they tried to figure it out. Their prisoner was somehow rejuvenated and filled with a power.
After more of this torture Haralan prayed for death, longing to see his Savior face to face. After fourteen days he felt death coming. The guard sensed it too and ran for a doctor. “This man is dying,” the doctor proclaimed. Haralan’s eyes were black holes in his head, his legs those of an elephant, lips cracked and bleeding, long beard matted with blood, pulse very slow. The tormentors did not want their victim to die. Back in his cell he revived somewhat but the next night he was brought before more interrogators. They jeered, they scoffed, and then began hitting and shoving. They wanted a confession.
One of the guards drew his pistol and led Haralan to an execution room splattered with dark blood marks and chips from bullets. Many had died here. On the count of five, the guard threatened, unless there was a confession, Haralan would be shot through the head. One…two…
Haralan was ecstatic with anticipation. He had no doubt he was washed in the blood of the Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, and soon he would be with His Master.
And then a power, a Holy Spirit power, rose up from within Haralan. With strength he shouted, “Don’t wait! Don’t wait! Shoot me straight in the head!” The guard never did intend to pull the trigger. The display of strength from the weakened prisoner unnerved him. Haralan, deeply disappointed, was thrown into his cell.
There were days alone in his cell when the Lord felt so close it caused tears of joy. He had nothing, yet he had everything – Christ. Never in freedom did he have such sweet communion with God. His union with Christ was enriched and fortified. Many years previous Paul the apostle wrote, “All those who will live Godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” Haralan was in jail because of his stand for Christ, and in that he took much comfort.
He did not have to be here. He could have avoided all this. When they invaded his home he knew the inevitable had come and, in a sense, he asked for it.
When the communists ran for election to govern Bulgaria they gave many promises. When elected they soon disposed of the opposition, and Bulgaria became known as “little Russia.” The writing was on the wall. As in Russia, Christianity was to be banished. There were a few years before the communists became entrenched and organized, and some Christians used this time to work feverishly, preaching the gospel and nurturing the many converts. Haralan Popov worked as hard as any, pastoring and evangelizing, knowing his days were numbered.
They rounded up the leaders and, not wanting them to appear as martyrs, accused them of espionage with the West. The torture was to break their will, at least temporarily, and get them to sign a confession.
Imprisoning Christians to stamp out Christianity often backfires. Nothing could stop Popov from witnessing Christ throughout his thirteen-year incarceration. On the streets one might walk away, but a prisoner is a captured audience, and many were converted to Jesus Christ. Some of these were released and brought the gospel to family and friends. One method of preaching was tapping the gospel to the prisoner in the next cell, using a cup and a crude signal system, making converts he never did see. Other times he preached openly. When guards caught him or an informer reported him, he was led away to be beaten, and then he would come back and pick up where he left off, sometimes in front of the same informer.
The mock trial date was set and Haralan was not yet broken. The guards responsible for getting a confession were panicky. Back to the punishment cell. Twenty-four hour days of interrogation and punishment, head swollen from hard blows, legs bruised and bloody from heavy boots. Seven days of unrelenting torture. Scripture verses flashed through Popov’s mind. “But all these things they will do unto you for my name’s sake… For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ; not only to believe on him but also to suffer for his sake.” Empowered by these thoughts, he managed to last seven days of this nonstop torture.
November 7th was the day Haralan Popov lost his will. Hallucinations. Snakes. Mad faces laughing hysterically. The edge of madness. It took three months, but now they had him.
“You are a spy of the first class.”
“Yes,” Haralan replied. And he signed the confessions. He was temporarily reduced to a parrot, a robot, willing to say or sign whatever. He was now ready for trial.
The Secret Police finished, Haralan was transferred to Central Prison, an old prison built for 300 to 400 prisoners, but filled with over 5,000. Haralan’s cell was next to the toilet, the place where prisoners emptied their buckets.
The trial took place in Courtroom 11, the finest in Sofia’s huge court complex. Journalists from the West, including those of the New York Times and the London Telegraph, were special guests. Haralan was one of fifteen of the highest church leaders who were tried together. They had been well fed the past few months, each dressed in his own suit and shirt, and no one could guess they had been tortured into submission.
The three puppet judges simply went through the motions; the real decisions were made by the secret police seated in the front row. The broken prisoners readily confessed to the crime of espionage. Both the prosecution and defense lawyers showed disgust to these traitors who hid behind Christianity. After twelve days of false witnesses and accusations, it was concluded that, although they each deserved the death penalty, because of the mercy of communism they were to receive varying prison sentences.
Orders went out that anyone helping the prisoners’ families would be sent to a concentration camp. Ruth and Rhoda and Paul were helpless, forced to leave their home, and Ruth lost her job. Sometimes it was a few carrots slipped to them by a fellow Christian that kept them alive. Knowing his wife and children were destitute was Haralan’s greatest suffering, and he cried out to God.
And then a miracle. The Swedish government successfully appealed to have Ruth, a Swedish subject, and her children released to return to her home country. On hearing the news Haralan was overjoyed, and deepened his commitment to preach Christ fearlessly. Every time he moved to another prison or cellblock he established secret Bible studies, did what he could to comfort others and prepare them for their coming eternity. Many came to the saving knowledge of Christ under his ministry of love.
Persin Prison, September 25, 1961. After thirteen years and three months he walked outside the prison doors, no one to meet him. Alone with a suitcase in hand, he looks back at the prison and remembers the nightly beatings and other horrible atrocities so wicked he would never speak of them. And he remembers the men whose lives were enriched by the gospel.
He should have died in prison, but the Lord sustained him. Like the time he was placed in a cell so deep it was total darkness. Left 35 days in the cold without clothes or food and water, he felt the presence of Christ as few men ever have, a highlight of his life. And the Christmas Eve he fell into the swelling Danube River. A practiced swimmer would have made it to shore with difficulty, but for Haralan it took the supernatural empowering of God.
Ahead of him was much work in a much larger prison, for now all of Bulgaria had lost its freedom and was one big penitentiary. It was not uncommon for pastors to report nightly for beatings. The church had gone underground and was in need of pastors who knew the Word of God. Haralan worked tirelessly.
Many saw a need for Popov to somehow get to the West to express to Christians the plight and needs of the underground church. Christians everywhere began to pray, knowing it would take a miracle for an ex-prisoner to get permission to leave Bulgaria, especially an unreformed ex-pastor such as Haralan. Jesus had said, “With God all things are possible.” Soon Haralan was in the arms of his wife and children and grandchildren in Sweden.
From there he traveled extensively, warning the Western church about the illness of communism, and making them aware of the plight of Christians behind the Iron Curtain.
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