I have been asked for a long time to publish the story of my family who was severely persecuted under the Communist regime in Bulgaria. My mother, Diana Dimov, has just released the first chapter of the story of our family. We hope that the generations following us will read this story and remember the price the Christians before them had to pay for their faith.
You have our permission to share this story with your friends and churches. If you have pictures of our family and especially of my father, Stefan Stefanov, we would be grateful for you to publish them in the comments below.
May Jesus be glorified through this testimony of the power of faith and prayer!
A DARK TIME OF MY LIFE
I don’t like to talk much about myself, but as I am beginning to tell the story of my life I am far from my homeland and all my memories come to light – memories of a life filed with trials but also with great blessings.
As a child I was quite mischievous and lively. I was not among the most obedient children and I often had to stand in a corner, and sometimes my strict parents disciplined me according to the Word: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:12). But I grew up healthy, strong and deeply loved.
I was born into a Christian family. My grandmother Irinka was on her deathbed when someone shared the good news about Christ. She believed that Jesus was her Savior and healer and she began living a new life completely healed. Her four children survived after a life of great poverty during the war, and later her two daughters and her two sons all married believers in Christ.
When my dad was a small child, he visited the Orthodox Church in his village together with his parents, but he had to leave home early to make a living in a different location. When in the city, he met some Adventists. He started going to church to learn the laws of God. Soon after that he was part of a group of volunteers who went to work in Germany. After a year and a half, he was brought back to Bulgaria because of the war. He was then sent to the front lines at the battle at Stratsin and Strazhin. The horror of the war was a reality for him. As a deputy commander of the machine gun he was to take a position on the front line.
The night before the battle, in the trenches he was side by side with his cousin. They could see that the outcome would be hopeless and disastrous. Then my father lifted his head up to Heaven and prayed: “Lord, You alone can save us. Please allow me to come out of this alive with just a minor wound.”
The next day, early in the morning the sound of a machine gun shook the drowsy surroundings. Smoke and the smell of gunpowder filled the air and covered the field. In front of my father’s eyes were lying dead bodies and very soon the commander of the machine gun fell dead as well. After that his cousin was shot by an enemy bullet. It was my father’s turn to take charge and he began to shoot the machine gun, but he was overwhelmed with fear. Then one of the officers pointed a gun at him and commanded him to stand behind the machine gun. “Aren’t you going to obey orders during war?”
Dad was forced to get out of the trench but as soon as he got out a bullet pierced his shoulder. That was how God protected him, because he was sent to the infirmary for medical treatment and recovery from his wound.
I still remember the small house on the “Irichek” street, a street surrounded by linden trees in my hometown of Stara Zagora. Right across form us was the Pentecostal Church. The pastor at the time was a man by the name of Emanuel Manolov – a very noble man with a British education, and an anointed man of God. Many of the first songs in the old hymn books have been translated by him. The church was big and always full of people. I could say that I grew up in the church. We never missed a service or a meeting. On Saint Theodore’s day there was a tradition that all the believers would gather in Stara Zagora.
After Brother Manolov, another pastor came to the church – Brother Asen Peichev. He was very energetic, lively and a good administrator. Very quickly he formed a choir and an orchestra. During that time I was learning how to play the violin and sure enough I was included in the orchestra.
After a few years the pastors were changed again and this time it was the big family of Ivan Yalamov who came to our city. He had a daughter and twin boys. They were so much fun and they were very different in their character. We played a lot with them, because they stayed longer than anyone else. Today the twins – Bojidar and George – both serve the Lord.
This was a short preview, before I met my future husband – Stefan Stefanov. In 1969 I went to study in Sofia and Stefcho was already there. I had known him for a short time before that, but from the first time we met, we knew that we were meant for each other.
Now is the time to share a little about the family of Stefan. His father – Nickola Stefanov left his home early to find a good job. He went all the way from the village of Zaya near Gabrovo to Burgas. There he shared a room and worked together with Todor Godjarov (who later became a pastor in Dimitrovgrad). One evening while they were coming home tired after work, they heard some really nice music coming from a nearby building. Then they saw a sign “Free entrance” and found themselves in the Pentecostal church in Burgas. After the service the young people paid a lot of attention to both of them and invited them to attend again.
They both believed and gave their lives to Jesus. In the small attic room, where they lived and prayed until late, they received the precious Gift, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At that time the pastor of the church Nikolay Nikolov was sending the zealous young people to Bible courses in Danzig, Germany (modern day Gdansk in Poland). This was where both Nikola Stefanov and Todor Godjarov went to study.
During that time in the village of Avramovo (called Mokren then) near Sliven there was a great revival. The church was growing fast. Stefan’s grandmother Temenujka also got saved, and then his mother Kaludka and the rest of the brothers and the sisters received Christ. But the father was a rich man and was very much against the faith. When the daughter Kaludka wanted to go to school in the city of Yambol, he demanded, “You deny God or forget about going to school.” She loved Jesus so much and although she really wanted to become a teacher, she answered, “I can easily give up going to school, but I could never deny Jesus.” Her strong faith later opened doors for her to preach and teach about Christ.
Nikola and Kaludka met and got engaged before Nikola left for Germany. When he returned they got married and were then sent together with the family of T. Godjarov to Ruse as young preachers of the Gospel. Soon after that the Stefanov family felt the call of God to start a church in Shumen. Their pioneering missionary endeavor in a strange city where there was not even a single believer, was heroic. For years they prayed and tried to break the spiritual darkness over that city. Gradually a few people were added until there were ten people in the small church. Their faith was strong and it preserved them in the hard years of persecution from neighbors and relatives and the abuse from the militia. Once my father-in-law was taken out in the outskirts of Shumen to a small cottage where the militia beat him up with an iron rod and plucked his hair out in an effort to make him deny God, so he would no longer “mislead” the people who visited his home.
After we returned from Sofia, the church came alive and a lot of young people started coming. New families were formed and for about five years the church grew to about 100 people. I can remember the first attempts to have Christmas and Easter programs, the small choir we had, the skits we had. The atmosphere in the church was so pleasant and we were like one big family. A lot of guests visited us from different cities. There were also “secret” envoys who brought Bibles, hymn books and literature. We opened a book library as part of the church and later a tape and video library. We started organizing children’s activities, women’s meetings and Bible classes.
Things were going so well, except the communists with their atheistic ideas did not approve of the growth of the church after all the years in which they had tried so hard to suffocate the faith of the church members.
And here is where the dark period for our family started. After Stefan’s parents died, one after the other suffering from serious illnesses, the responsibility of the church was left to us. It was not easy to have a government job and also lead the life of the church. But the Lord was giving us strength to do it all, and the believers were contributing all that they could as well.
One day, right before the service, a mother and her daughter came to the second floor where we were living. The mother shared how her daughter had fallen from a bike and hit her head. She lost consciousness and then she got fear neurosis. They went to many different doctors but did not find any help. And then a sister in the Lord testified about the power of Christ and invited them to church. We talked for a while in our living room, and then we prayed and went to the first floor which was actually where the church met. There all the other believers also prayed for Blaga and she felt better. So the mother and her daughter started to attend our meetings regularly and Blaga was feeling better and better. She shared this with one of her friends named Pepa. So Pepa began coming to church also.
Pepa’s boyfriend was very surprised because he could not figure out where these two girls were going every week on the same day at the same time. As first Pepa and Blaga were afraid to share with him but after they told him, he showed interest towards the church. The young people were touched by the warmth of the spiritual atmosphere in the church and preferred the wonderful Zion songs and the uplifting prayers to the secular disco halls.
And this was where it all began. The first adversaries to the new believers were their own parents. When Pepa and her boyfriend Rumen decided to get married, they firmly told their parents that they wanted to be married at the Pentecostal church on Street “Pirot” 17. Rumen’s parents who were fanatical communists could not bear such “stigma” for the family. They declared that they would deny their only son through a well-known procedure, then through the State Gazette (a weekly then daily issued print edition containing changes of rules and regulations, legal acts as well as official decisions of the National Assembly). So they refused to help with the wedding, returned the invitations, the wedding rings, and canceled the restaurant, but the young couple was unyielding. In this hard time the love of all the believers was a great support for them. The wedding was a strange procession of just a beautifully dressed young man and woman, accompanied only by their witnesses. The ministers at the city council were very surprised. They did not even play the Wedding March by Mendelson for them. The wedding ceremony was in the Pentecostal church in Varna where the believers had carefully prepared everything.
But the enraged parents could not forget this public insult and proceeded to act against the ministers of the church. Rumen’s mother regularly visited the church for six months and then told everything to the Secret Service – the sermons and all that was going on in the church. And this could only give me joy, because today, as I read all the 800 pages in the dossier of our family, I can see how Stefcho was preaching the truth and was leading people to Jesus. So the Secret Service began to call for questioning the different pastors and deacons as well as Pastor Joseph Kokonchev, the pastor of the church in Varna, where Rumen and Pepa were married. At our places of work they conducted Komsomol meetings to exclude us from the Komsomol, since it was not acceptable for a member of the Komsomol to be a believer. For them religion and Komsomol were enemies and they never thought that the purpose of both was the same – to teach the young people to be honest, moral and disciplined.
In the years between 1974 and 1976 the thought was that Bulgaria could become a totally atheistic country and uproot religion within a few years. This was also the decision of the 12th Congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party. It was therefore forbidden for children and students to attend church. At Christmas and Easter they were organizing a teacher’s posse and the teachers would write the names of the students who were present at the liturgy of the Orthodox Church or any other church. But the Word of the Lord is alive and cannot be quenched; neither could the saving plan of Christ be hidden.
Although some of the saints suffered much during that regime we are now witnesses of how Bulgaria not only did not become an atheistic country but on the contrary – today it is one of the places where the gospel is most widely preached. This is the mighty hand of the Lord! Thousands of people gather in different cities and villages to heat about Jesus Christ and to give their hearts to Him – sinners, murderers, drug addicts, alcohol addicts, prostitutes… Is this not the act of the Mightiest, the Most Holy and Pure, who during His earthly life suffered at the Cross of Calvary for the sins of all men, so that whosoever would believe in Him would have eternal life (John 3:16)? This is all because of the power of God!
During those hard years our family suffered a lot. The happy laughter was suddenly silenced. Nothing has ever happened without the knowledge of God, but at the time it was so very difficult. It was hard for the suffering Job as well, of whom the Lord spoke and said that “there is none like him on earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8). I still do not understand why all this happened in our family and the outcome after that.
The story of Rumen and Pepa affected my husband Stefan the most, because he was a young intellectual with incredible looks, and like Deacon Stephen he was full of grace and strength. The communists felt they had to eliminate such a person who “seduced” the simple-minded people and “caught” the young boys and girls, which was the reason the church was growing so fast. During those years it was rather easy to convict an innocent man, and even without conviction, without a lawsuit, to send him to a distant and remote place. I had a neighbor who was blamed for telling political jokes. I know a few pastors who were accused as spies because of their connection with foreigners. In fact they were the most anointed men of faith and through them the churches and the work of God in Bulgaria had grown a lot for a short time.
On December 4th, 1975 early in the morning, Stefcho was summoned to the militia and to meet Colonel Christo Grigorov. When he told me over the phone we were really perplexed, uncertain of the reason for this trouble. We never even imagined that they had summoned him to give him an eviction order for leaving Shumen for three years. The order said, “The training of the children is responsibility of the State.” And for not keeping Article 20 of the Law of Denominations Stefan was to be interned to the village of Veselinovo and had only three days to leave Shumen. God Almighty, this came to us like thunder on a clear day! What did Stefan have to do with the training of the children who were coming to the church? What had he done against the state and why he had not been warned even once for such a thing? So many questions were coming to my mind. We were trying to find the reason for that cruel punishment. We wrote objections to various institutions. We looked for help from the Committee of Denominations, from the chairman of the Pentecostal Union – Pastor Ivan Zarev; from the Ministry of Interior Affairs. It all came down to a decision made by the local Regional Council in Shumen. We realized in great despair that we had become the victims of slander and there was no way for us to search for the truth, to blame or in any way oppose the situation. We just had bitter pain in our hearts which was so strong it hurt. We were still a very young family with two little children – Nicky who was four and a half years old and Bobby who was one and a half years old. When we tried to enforce our right to know the reason for the eviction of Stefan Nikolov Stefanov, the answer was always the same – “He knows why.”
One time, when he had yet another meeting with colonel Grigorov, the colonel told Stefan, “You need to get the church gatherings out of your house. It is totally unacceptable to conduct church meetings in an engineer’s home.” Stefan’s answer was, “This was the will of my father. On his death bed he asked me to protect the church. Whom do I cause trouble by having the church in my home? And besides, it was registered officially in 1948 at that very same address, ‘Pirot 17.’” Enraged, the State Security official yelled, “You will spend not just three or five years, you will remain interned 10 years until the church leaves your home.” But then Stefcho humbly replied, “I am not the factor for the believers to gather together and for the church to grow, but I still cannot do such a thing. If any of you can stand at the door and stop the children and the people from coming in, you do it.”
There was no obvious reason for them to close the church and it was a lot easier for them to fool around with an innocent man. We alone know what we went through while we were separated by force, the children were crying piteously for their dear dad. Stefcho started having high blood pressure; Borko started suffering from upset stomach and gastritis; I myself was very frustrated and nervous and cried all the time and no one knew when all this turmoil would be over. We lived in constant fear that someone was following us, they eavesdropped on our conversations over the phone, and we were oppressed before the neighbors, our colleagues and our relatives. In the meantime the people could not help but wonder why such a good, hardworking and quiet man was sent away from his family and what evil he had done to deserve it. They changed his place of residence three times and finally sent him far away in Diarbekir, Kaolinovo, where they even placed a warden to live with him. In spite of all this he had “secret visitors” – believers who risked their lives to go and meet with Stefcho and to encourage him and give him a helping hand. God never left us in those hard times, but the mental harassment was prevailing. The only thing we could do was to sing with tears in our eyes, to pray and to wait.
I just want to share of one occasion to show how the children were feeling in all of this. I went to visit them, because they were temporarily living with my parents in Stara Zagora. Every Friday there was a prayer night. I was staying in a small room alone and praying when someone called me to go to the main hall and there they pointed at my boys – Nicky and Bobby, who had been crying out and praying heartbreakingly, “Father, Jesus, please bring Daddy home! Bring Daddy home!”
We were not sure if we could believe it, but just a week after that they began to talk about changes in the law of internment. And we got the news that Stefcho was released. Grigorov was threatening us that he would be away for more than three years but after two years went by, Stefan was set free. Just as he left, he came back without any written orders. Just like Pilate, they simply washed their hands. They left deep wounds in the souls of so many people. We often felt that we were on the verge of losing our minds. But the Lord was in control and He made us strong enough to endure the pain.
Stefcho’s childhood was not easy – years of poverty, persecution. He often shared with me how when he was a small child he would swear that he would clean streets but he would never become a pastor. He had to endure the mocking of the neighbors who were communists, the bulling at school – making fun of him, calling his father a priest… Often times when they woke up in the morning, they would find writing on the walls of their house – “Death to the priest!” But the call to minister as a pastor is a call from God! All this was expressed by Stefcho in one perfect sermon – “Song in the Night.”
We were in a time of restoration, but all the hardships left their mark on us. Soon after that Stefan was struck by a horrible disease – a tumor of the pituitary gland. Shortly before the symptoms started showing we had received a warning “Prepare to meet the Lord!” He just humbly answered, “We should all be prepared, because no one knows when his last day will come.”
The time for recovery after the surgery was long and drawn out, and we needed to be patient. I could not bear the fact that this strong as a rock, smart and handsome man was so helpless. But I had some hope. One day, when I came home from work, Stefcho met me and he was really excited. Then he shared with me that he had listened to some tapes of sermons by Reinhard Bonnke, and especially one of them with the title, “Take your Bow and Shoot.” He felt so well, as if he was in heaven. He fell on his knees, raised his hands up in prayer, and began to praise and glorify his Savior. And he told me, “Didi, if it was not for you and the children, nothing else could keep me from being with Jesus. But I know that the kids are still very small and they need me.” From that moment on Stefcho felt the divine healing and he grew strong and full of energy. Two months after the surgery he started driving the car and went back to work.
I later remembered every word and every act of Stefcho. I realized that God had been preparing me for the separation which I could not accept at the time. When God said, “Prepare to meet the Lord,” nothing could have changed that. December the 7th 1988 was the last day of the earthly life of Stefan Stefanov. He went to be with his Lord, to whom he had given his life, his strength and his love so he could serve Him with his whole heart!