Archive for April, 2014

Pastor Bahytzhan Karimovich Kashkumbaev (67) from Kazakhstan spent nine long months in a prison cell. A mother of a church member had claimed that Kashkumbaev had caused psychological harm to her daughter. Robbed of his freedom and his Bible, the pastor entered ‘God’s university’ in prison. He was recently released. Open Doors went to Kazakhstan to interview  the pastor about his experiences.

Open Doors: Can you describe your life before you went to prison?

Kashkumbaev: “I came to the Lord through the witness of my family, but when I became a believer I never imagined God would call me to serve as a minister. I was totally fine to just visit a church and leave it at that. To my surprise, He did speak to me: ‘Bakhytzhan, follow Me and I will make you a fisher of men.’ I made a decision to dedicate my life to Jesus and the next day after this I resigned from my job at the University. In 1994, my wife Alfia and I went to Moscow and applied to a seminary there. After graduating from seminary, God directed me to lead a Church in Karaganda in Central Kazakhstan. After two years there, He called me and Alfia to go to the new Kazakhh capital, Astana, to plant a church.

For the first service we rented a concert hall with 5,000 seats and gave away about 3,500 invitations. We invited the worship group from the Karaganda Church to lead the worship and invited the pastor from Karaganda to preach. That first service, less than hundred people showed! I was upset and cried. I asked God if He really wanted me to start the new Church. But then the preacher came to me after the service and shared the story of how the Church in Karaganda city had started with only five elderly women meeting together. Since then, I never doubted if God was calling me to do something. I’ve led the church until just shortly before my arrest last year. I am a retired pastor now.”

In those years, until your arrest, was there any pressure from the government?

“In 2012 the authorities tried to take the church building away from us. For some reason, they stopped that procedure, but shortly after the police informed me that a mother of a church member had filed a complaint against me. The police searched our church a couple of times and in May 2013 I was charged.”

Can you describe your arrest?

“First of all, when I was arrested they lied to me. Two officers of the National Security Agency (the former KGB, OD) came to get me. Only for questioning, they said. They would release me within half an hour if I would answer their questions. But at the police station I was arrested. I called Alfia and she came to the police station immediately. She started to cry, of course. Fifteen minutes later they took me to a temporary detention facility. Two days later, I made my first appearance before the court and it was decided that my temporary detention was extended. During the first ten days I suffered from an ear inflammation because it was extremely cold in the cell. The cold made me depressed and I started to pray: ‘Dear Lord, would you please take me to You or warm me up in this cold place?’ Only ten minutes later, the cell door opened and a guard threw an extra blanket to me. I realized God had answered my prayer.”

How would you describe life in a Kazakh prison? What did you see, hear, smell, taste and feel?

Kashkumbaev laughs. “None of my five senses work really well! There were nine people in our cell and it smelled really damp. We resented our prison cell and complained to the guards. Eventually they transferred us to a better cell. You have to realize that you really live in that ‘cage’. You eat there, you sleep there and you go to the toilet there. But what I hated the most about the prison cell was that almost all prisoners, except myself and one other guy, smoked. Somehow God protected me from having negative feelings. What is really surprising is that despite the smoke, I did not have to cough. I realized God’s protection and His favor towards me. Almost every prisoner had a positive attitude towards me, whether they were prisoners serving long sentences or newcomers. The guards also showed their respect towards me.”

Did all days look the same to you?

“Our daily schedule did not change, but I wouldn’t say that every day was like the other. For example, even though most prisoners were eventually nice towards me, I had to stand guard. The prisoners would try to provoke me and each other to say bad things or to do bad things, but I decided not to do anything like this. I did not swear and I did not think poorly about anyone. When I could, I helped others, but I never made promises because you are never sure if you can keep them. Despite these circumstances, I was never afraid. You should never be afraid in prison.

Did you have a Bible?

“In the beginning I did not have a Bible. I only prayed. At some point I was able to get secret access to a Bible, but only for a few weeks. I wrote like I had never written in my life. I copied my favorite passages from the Old Testament and almost the entire New Testament into my personal notebook. After a while, I was transferred to the psychiatric ward in Almaty. Someone gave me a Bible there. The Bible was very big. I assumed it would be taken away from me as soon as I got back to jail, but for the rest of my time in prison, the guards and police did not seem to notice my giant Bible! God must have closed the eyes of the guards during the systematic searches of our cell.”

What have you learned from your prison experience?

“I had known God for many years before I arrived in prison, but I can say that while you are in captivity you experience the closest and most intimate relations with the Lord. During those nine months, God taught me to know Him better and to understand Him better. Especially His love and His mercy. For example, He taught me how to love my enemy. I discovered that I never actually loved my enemies before, but being in jail – surrounded by ‘enemies’ – I realized what it means to love your enemy. When I started sharing the Gospel, I noticed the thirst of my fellow inmates and their desire to listen to stories about God. I realized their great need to hear the truth. They had lived in a lie for so long that they were interested to hear every word I said, especially the young prisoners. The prison guards helped me in my efforts. For some reason, they moved me from one cell to another, which left a trail of the Gospel in this prison facility. I learned why God had sent me to this prison: to show Christ to the prisoners. They were not convinced to surrender to Him by my words. They needed to see the Lord in action.”

How did they respond?

“I was His instrument. Dozens of prisoners came to faith because of my example and my personal attitude. They asked me questions such as ‘Why are you doing this for us?’ I answered them: ‘I am doing this for you because God is doing it for me’.”

Despite these wonderful events, what were you hoping would happen? To be released soon?

“Yes, I hoped and expected to be released soon. I was very concerned about my wife and children and knew they suffered while I was here. But at some point I was able to hand over all my worries to the Lord. I experienced a peace in my heart which I am unable to describe in words.”

Did you know many people were praying for you?

“A prisoner secretly owned a cell phone and I was able to talk to my son. He mentioned a couple of times that many were praying for me. Knowing that really humbled my heart. I had to cry when I thought about those who brought me before the Lord in their prayers. I will be forever grateful to them.”

At some point you were told you would be released. Instead, you were immediately arrested on new charges. What did you feel?

“When I saw two National Security agents waiting outside the detention facility, I was ready for anything. They can do pretty much anything, you know. So they took me to their office and came with the new allegations. I don’t know why this theatrical act was necessary. They could have told me in prison. Before I left my prison cell, I had given all my belongings to the inmates and they were very surprised to see me return in only a couple of hours. ‘Why did you come back?’, they asked. I replied: ‘The prison cannot exist without me!’”

But you don’t know why you were arrested this second time?

“Of course, I know why they first told me I would be released. They were trying to break my will. However, during my entire time in prison I was able to trust in the Lord. I returned to prison with much peace in my heart.”

Then, after nine long months, the ordeal was finally over. You were really released.

“Yes. I can hardly describe my feelings. Joy and light filled my heart when I left. I was so happy to see my family, especially my grandchildren. I felt so grateful and joyful. It was really the joy of freedom!”

Are you still in danger?

“Of course I am still being watched. The court also decided I have to live in our church complex. I am not allowed to live somewhere else. It is a strange decision and I suspect that maybe something has been fabricated against me again. I have many reasons to think I am still in danger. I will not talk about them now, but I do not rule out the possibility of the government trying again to break me.”

What do you have to say to all those people who prayed for you?

The pastor pauses a long time, then resumes speaking: “Every cell of my body, every part of my soul, and every piece of who I am is so grateful to the Lord for each of you. You are my dear family, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ! I know that here on earth we live a short moment, and I praise the Lord, that in this short moment we call life, we’ve found Jesus Christ! I know that eternity is ahead of us, and I will look forward to meet each of you and give you a hug! I love you with the love that Jesus poured out into my heart!”ImageImage

What is God’s call for you? Are you acting upon it now? If not, what is hindering you?

“Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.… (Matthew 4: 18-20)

The sun has set. Darkness falls over the Mediterranean Sea. Fish is being served on plates to us; six men grouped around two joined tables with a paper tablecloth. Next to me sits Labib (pseudonym) a modern version of Peter and Andrew, he is fishing in North Africa men and women ready to be caught in the nets of the Kingdom of God.

My visit to North Africa is meant to get a better insight of what the Lord is doing in this part of the world. Labib is one of the people God is using to go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.

In North Africa, one of the biggest fishing tools is satellite Television. “If I would go and preach the gospel on the streets one to one, I would reach a single person. On satellite television, I enter the living rooms and sleeping rooms of hundreds of thousands of people”, a programme-maker said earlier this day to me. I paid a visit to a studio where a team worked on new Christian Television programmes daily.

The work in the studio, the editing of the films and the follow-up work is supported by Open Doors.   “Many Christians watch Christian TV as it isn’t always possible for them to come to the church or the Bible study groups”, the coordinator of the work of Open Doors in this country explained earlier to me. “The programmes strengthen the believers.” One of the church leaders in North Africa agrees totally with this. “Sometimes we see people not coming to church. For example, women are kept like prisoners in their homes for being a Christian. With television, we can reach them and they continue to grow. I also know of several farmers – as they live far from the church, they can’t go to the service regularly, but they can watch the programmes on television.”

All these Christian programmes display a telephone number to the viewers that want to respond to the programme. “Just last month, I had more than 1,000 calls”, Labib shares. It wasn’t even the highest, the highest was 1,200 in a month. “We always have at least 700 calls a month.” Labib is the first contact of the programmes broadcasted in several North African countries.

“Sometimes it’s just a bleep, a sign that the caller wants me to call him back. Others call and are very straightforward: ‘I want to become a Christian, how do I do that?’ Last month I had 13 people like this. These callers already made their choice by watching the TV programmes.”

He has all kinds of callers. “Of course we have people who would criticize me, or even shout and curse me. Others want to discuss about the differences between another religion and the Christian faith. However, most of them really want to know more about the Bible, about Jesus. When I talk to them, I ask where they live and when I feel comfortable with the caller, I connect them with a follow-up worker from one of the churches in the country.”

When a woman calls, he connects her with one of the female follow-up workers. “Sometimes the people would ask for prayer. We prayed for married women who wanted to become pregnant. There were several cases of women becoming pregnant after receiving prayer. We had couples calling us when entering the maternity ward for delivery, saying that our prayer was heard. I once was called by a couple, that they had named their son after me.”

Sometimes the phone number turns out to be a life line. “One day a man phoned. He said he was going to end his life, he just wanted the call to say goodbye. He said that the rope was already prepared and he was about to hang himself. I ran to my pastor, who lives close to me while talking to the man and gave the phone to him. He talked for quite some time with the depressed man and convinced him out of committing suicide. The man is ok now, he is going to church.”

From all over North Africa, we hear encouraging statistics about people finding new life in Christ after watching Christian TV and being connected with a follow-up team. Recently, Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church in Algeria said: “About 70 to 80 percent of the Christians in the Algerian protestant Churches came to church through Christian television.”

The fishing tools for the Kingdom of God have changed during the past decades. Nowadays, the Lord uses TV studios, television screens, computer screens and mobile phones to have the first contact and to enter into a person’s life.

After the meal, we had a walk along the seashore. Some ordinary fishermen sat on the stones with their rods trying to catch a sleepy fish while Labib is fishing with his mobile phone. I was impressed. Labib received, in the two hours I was with him, some ten phone calls. Two of the callers were brought into contact with a follow-up team from one of the churches close to the place where the interested person lives. “Sometimes, the phone rings so much that I don’t even have time to speak to my fiancée because I am too occupied speaking on my cell phone.” He continues with a big smile: “but she understands, she knows what I am doing and agrees fully with it.”

During Open Doors’ recent trip to the Central African Republic (CAR), we visited several communities that testified about the destruction they have experienced during the Seleka rebellion and the hardship caused by anti-Balaka reprisal. As we travelled through the capital Bangui and into the South and West of the country, the destruction was evident everywhere.

But when we reached Bozoum, we heard a surprising testimony.

“After a difficult journey from Baoro on a dirt road at a snail’s pace in a ImageSangaris convoy, we reached Bozoum. At the Lutheran mission where we lodged, we met the pastor and an elder. We found their optimism surprising,” explains Open Doors’ Research and Communications Manager for West and Central Africa.

The Christian leaders told OD that not much harm had been done in this city. No more than 20 houses were burnt, and only a handful of people died in the rebel campaign. There was also no violence between anti-Balaka and Seleka here.

Compared to other towns this escape of Seleka destruction is unheard of.  Even in the next town of Bouar, the circumstances have been completely different. Here, the religious extremists rejoiced at the Seleka take-over and declared that they were ready for action against the Christians. “Mbaran Chrétiens fou”, loosely translated to mean, ‘If you Christians play with us, we will kill you!’

The Bozoum Christians ascribe their circumstances to God graciously answering their fervent prayers during an intense intercessory movement in the city. The Christians prayed and fasted for their city from the start of the Seleka rebellion in December 2012 and continued meeting weekly, each time at a different church, to proclaim the Name of Jesus. We saw evidence of their proclamation in the Bible verses they painted on rocks all around the city. They also prayed for the people of the other religions who had come to see the Christians as their enemies.”

For the Seleka commander, Suleyman, it was a total mystery why they were only able to do 1% of the harm they planned for the town. Somehow their plans were always blocked. Suleyman has since died in an attack near the Cameroonian border. With his death came an end to Seleka reign over Bozoum. However, while Suleyman’s legacy has disappeared with his death, the testimony of God’s gracious answer to the Bouar Christians’ fervent prayers remains.

 

With every effort ploughed into the expansion/advancement of God’s Kingdom comes a resistance from the kingdom of darkness of an equal magnitude or more. We need prayer and we besiege all of you brothers and sisters to pray with us and for us even as we serve the persecuted Churches knowing that we are called to “strengthen whatever remains that is at the brink of death…”

Please Pray for:

1) Our office – That we will remain strong in order to strengthen

2) Our field workers – That the world will not be able to stop them from their work among the persecuted

3) Our leadership – That divine wisdom will be bestowed upon them to advance our ministry further.

4) Our country – That inflation, higher standards of living, materialism, apathy and the bombardment of various doctrines that contradict the bible will not deter us from serving our Lord with all of our hearts, minds, soul and strength.