“We are alive. We are fed. We have clothes. We are healthy.” According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley, that was the reply of one pastor in Russia-occupied Ukraine to her question, “What message would you like us to share with Christians in the outside world about your situation?”
Representative Foley and members of the Voice of the Martyrs Korea organisation conducted a week-long martyrdom training event in late November in a secret location in Romania, attended by that pastor (who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons) along with eight others from Russia-occupied Ukraine and other parts of the country hit hard by the war.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley teaches Christian-based trauma recovery to church leaders from Occupied Ukraine and the neighbouring war zones.
“Two things are true about the pastors who attended,” says Representative Foley. “First, they are facing extremely difficult and dangerous ministry situations. Second, they are choosing to stay in those situations and to make a faithful witness to Christ and the gospel.”
Representative Foley says that while the location in Romania was selected because of its accessibility to the majority of invitees, four invitees were unable to attend due to border crossing restrictions. “Almost all the attendees had arduous travel, by car, bus, train, and even some other means,” she says. “Getting visas and making it through passport checks was a constant challenge. One invitee was even turned back on the way, after a long journey. Two invitees became ill and had to cancel. Hearing about the travels of these Christian workers in and out of these war regions reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s recounting of his own travel experiences in 2 Corinthians 11:26, where he wrote, ‘I have been in danger from rivers and from bandits, in danger from my countrymen and from the Gentiles, in danger in the city and in the country, in danger on the sea and among false brothers.’ But these nine said they came because they wanted to learn more effective strategies for faithful witness amidst persecution and war.”
According to Representative Foley, one day of training was devoted to the theology of martyrdom and persecution, another day to trauma recovery from a Christian perspective, and another how to preach and teach martyrdom and persecution from each book of the Bible. She said the highlight of the training was taking the attendees on a day-long field trip to several locations from the life of Voice of the Martyrs global founder, Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, who spent 14 years imprisoned and tortured by Communists during the Soviet era. “First, we watched the movie ‘Tortured for Christ’ together with our Ukrainian training attendees. The movie tells the story of Pastor Wurmbrand’s imprisonment because of his faithful witness to the gospel.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Drs Hyun Sook Foley stands in front of the former Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest, Romania where Voice of the Martyrs founder Richard Wurmbrand was once imprisoned in an underground cell. The organisation took Ukrainian pastors to the site as part of a recent training event in martyrdom.
Then we took our attendees to Jilava Prison and to the old Communist Party headquarters, the two main locations where Pastor Wurmbrand was imprisoned and tortured.
We also took the attendees to the Christian bookstore which was opened with the help of the Wurmbrands when communism fell. We told them how at that time the bookstore needed a place to store its extra books and Bibles, so the post-communist government offered the use of Pastor Wurmbrand’s former prison cell nearby. It was a powerful reminder to them that faithful witness can ultimately topple even the mightiest political and military power.”
Representative Foley says the attendees were deeply moved by the field trip. “One attendee said she felt physically ill inside the prison, thinking of the suffering Pastor Wurmbrand and other Romanian Christians had endured there for so many years. But one attendee noted, ‘Although this prison was extremely bad, I have actually seen even worse prisons.’ We talked about Christian leaders in Occupied Ukraine who have faced interrogation, imprisonment, and even death. Yet the attendees concluded the week with renewed strength and commitment to return home and be faithful just as Pastor Wurmbrand had been faithful.”
Representative Foley says that the time together provided an opportunity for attendees to consult with each other and with Voice of the Martyrs Korea on ministry strategy. “The situation is different in each area of Ukraine,” she says. “The attendees agreed that the Luhansk Region is the most restrictive for Christians, with local Christians there hearing rumours that Russia is planning even tighter controls to be implemented from now through 2026.”
The other challenge attendees reported facing, says Representative Foley, is the need to separate humanitarian aid distribution from evangelism. “The attendees reported how they all were receiving large quantities of humanitarian aid from outside groups and how they had been trying to use it to ‘prepare the soil’ for evangelism via distribution to non-Christians,” says Representative Foley. “But through their experiences they had all come to the realisation that fallen, sinful human beings know how to take advantage of any system where material benefit is available to them. They said all the aid has produced are many so-called ‘bread Christians’.
Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley and CEO Pastor Eric Foley lead a group of Ukrainian pastors into Jilava Prison in Romania. During the Soviet era, the prison housed Voice of the Martyrs founder Richard Wurmbrand and other Christians who were detained and tortured for their faith.
So, our training attendees concluded that there really is no substitute for a direct, clear proclamation of the gospel totally separate from humanitarian aid. Both humanitarian aid and evangelism are important ministries for Christians, but faith can only come by hearing the word of God, and God neither uses nor requires any ‘preparation of the soil’ when he gives the gift of faith to those who hear the word.”
Representative Foley says that a particular highlight of the training for her was the opportunity to provide funds to attendees to enable them to continue their ministries of faithful witness.
“Their needs are so varied,” says Representative Foley. “One attendee just needed snow tires for his car so he can return to his church now that it is winter. Another attendee needed help to cover the living expenses of his church deacons. Across the whole Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, about half the Christians have left since 2014, including many pastors. One of the attendees now oversees a network of five churches with the help of deacons. But the deacons must remain out of public sight at all times because if they are caught, they will be automatically conscripted into the Russian military. So they are risking their safety to stay, but they are unable to earn money to support their families through outside jobs.”
Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley and CEO Pastor Eric Foley view a display about Rev Richard Wurmbrand at Jilava Prison in Romania. The organisation recently conducted a week-long martyrdom training event for pastors from Occupied Ukraine.
Representative Foley says that while other organisations are concentrating on providing humanitarian aid, Voice of the Martyrs Korea continues to focus on providing funds enabling churches to continue to make a faithful witness through direct evangelism and to care for family members when that faithful witness leads to the death or imprisonment of church leaders.
“Humanitarian aid is important, but as Jesus told us, man cannot live on bread alone. As our attendees have learned, combining humanitarian aid with evangelism usually yields ineffective and even counterproductive evangelism,” says Representative Foley. “Now in Eastern Ukraine, half the church has fled and no amount of bread can bring it back. Unless bold witnesses risk their lives proclaiming the gospel there, there can be no hearing of faith. Voice of the Martyrs Korea is honoured to provide training and support to the church leaders who are doing just that.”