On July 24, 1948, very early in the morning, three men came to the home of Haralan Popov. They searched his entire ouse, turning everything upside down as they pulled private belongings out of drawers and closets. With zeal akin to vandalism they knocked books and knickknacks off shelves. Haralan, his wife Ruth, and their nine-year-old daughter Rhoda watched the intruders fearfully. For three hours these men ransacked the place before taking Haralan along for questioning at the police station. He kissed his wife goodbye and hugged his small daughter. Then for one brief agonizing moment he gazed at the humped-up form of his infant son Paul in the crib. The boy had slept through the entire ordeal. Haralan would not see his family again for more than thirteen years.
Haralan Popov was the pastor of a Protestant church in Bulgaria. Faithfully traveling as an evangelist to mountain towns and villages to proclaim God’s Word, he had not always been a Christian. Born in 1907 and raised on a farm in the little town of Krasno Gradiste, his childhood had been one of poverty and hard work. It had made him tough and skeptical. He had no use for God and, as an eighteen-year-old teenager, Haralan left home to look for his fortune in the larger city of Ruse.
In 1925 it wasn’t easy to find a job in Ruse. Many people were unemployed. But, providentially, Haralan bumped into Christo, a former neighbor and a Christian, who invited Haralan to stay with him. Christo didn’t have much room. He lived in a tiny apartment all of six feet long by six feet wide. Although Haralan landed the occasional part-time job, he did not earn enough on which to live and the kindly Christo continued to share both his food and lodging. One evening Christo asked him to attend church services. As Christo had been very helpful, Haralan reluctantly agreed. At the church he was pleasantly surprised to find that the service was conducted in the Bulgarian language instead of the old Slavic tongue that many could not understand anymore. He was also very much moved by the enthusiastic hymn-singing of the congregation to the beautiful melodies of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. He had always supposed that religion was for the old and feeble-minded, and so he listened with increasing astonishment to a fervent and wellspoken sermon. After the service several people spoke to him and Haralan was in a quandary. Had he been wrong his whole life or were these intelligent, caring people simply misguided? Later Christo invited the pastor to visit them in their small room. The pastor read the Bible and explained the gospel to Haralan. Scales fell, as it were, from his eyes and the Holy Spirit moved him to a rebirth—a rebirth that left him joyful and full of desire to share his newfound faith in Christ.
Early in 1929, when Haralan was twenty-two years old, he left Bulgaria to prepare for a life of Christian service. He attended Bible institutes in both Poland and England. The Lord increased his knowledge and also gave him a helpmeet who bore the appropriate name of Ruth. They married in 1937. A Swedish native, Ruth was moved to say when Haralan asked her to marry and accompany him to his native Bulgaria, “Haralan, wherever you go, I go also.” The years that followed were a blessing for Haralan and Ruth as well as for Bulgaria. Haralan had the freedom to preach and evangelize across the land. During the Second World War, however, preaching became dangerous, and after the war it became twice as dangerous. Hard on the heels of the German Nazis, the Communists took over. Religious freedom became a thing of the past. Puppet pastors were trained, pastors who preached communism instead of Christ crucified. Those who refused to preach communism were slandered, arrested, and replaced. Haralan Popov was one such pastor who refused. So his arrest in the early morning hours of July 1948 came as no surprise to him, no surprise at all.
From his home, Haralan was taken to the secret police headquarters. For the next five months these headquarters became his home. At night he was taken from his cell to an interrogation chamber and was forced to stand facing a wall. Behind him interrogators continually asked him to deny his faith. He had to stand stock-still. If he so much as blinked an eye, he was beaten. During the day he was prevented from sleeping and was put on a starvation diet. After ten days of beatings, Haralan, upon passing a window, saw his image reflected. He later wrote that he saw “a horrible, emaciated figure, legs swollen, eyes like empty holes in the head, with a long beard covered with dried blood from cracked and bleeding lips. 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.’ The presence of God filled the punishment cell and enveloped me in a divine warmth, infusing strength into the shell that was my body.”*
There is a great sadness about being imprisoned, about being closed away from the rest of the world. A sham trial sentenced Haralan to fifteen years even though he had done nothing wrong. The prospect of being shut up for such a long period of time was devastating. Haralan longed to be back with his family even as he also longed to be back in his pulpit, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. He often wondered why God had permitted such terrible things to take place in his life. But the longer Haralan was in prison, the more he began to understand that suffering is to be regarded as something of great value; that it was a fire that would purify him. Haralan’s understanding about suffering did not come to him suddenly, but only after much thinking. He remembered verses like “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10), and “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4:16). Yes, over time, Haralan began to see very clearly that God had placed him in prison for a reason.
1. What were the means God used for Haralan’s conversion? How is it a Christian’s responsibility to make these means available to those he or she meets?
2. What have been some difficult situation(s) in your life that God used to encourage you to think about Him? How did it make you develop patience?