Secret Church in the Backseat of a Soviet Car

November 15, 2017 by Jan Vermeer in Europe

Open Doors has representatives on the ground in more than 60 countries. In this report from Chechnya, Open Doors field worker Jan Vermeer gives us an inside look at the lives of Christians who must express their faith in secrecy. Here, he shares a recent divine encounter with a persecuted believer—one of only an estimated 100 believers living in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital city.

The old Soviet car drove into an alley.

“We’re going to stop in front of the door,” said Vashka*, my Chechen guide. “When we stop, you jump out and go inside immediately.”

It was dark outside. Still, anyone could take one glance at me and my blond hair and quickly see that I was both foreign and Dutch—a risky combination in this volatile country. It wasn’t too long ago that rebels from neighboring Dagestan finally released fellow Dutchman and medical aid worker Arjan Erkel 607 days after his kidnapping. To bring him home, the Dutch government paid a huge ransom. I knew that my life was worth a million dollars—or nothing.

A few hours earlier, we had driven through one of the Russian villages. For a minute, I felt like I was riding through the streets of Paris. Everywhere I looked, I saw wide lanes, beautifully designed lanterns and new shops. The scene was a far cry from the devastation and unmarked graves that once characterized the landscape of Grozny (“the terrible” in Russian). Wars between Islamic rebels and Russian troops had left Chechnya’s capital in ruins. Years later, however, the city center had been wonderfully renovated.

Still, I knew danger was only a turn away. Vashka had warned me: “There are still some 3,000 armed men out there,” he said, pointing out to the mountains.

I did what my guide said and went quickly inside the home where I was staying.

Only 100 Christians Out of 2 Million 

Months earlier, I felt that God had led me here to Chechnya, though I didn’t really know why. In fact, due to the prevalence of the kidnappings of foreigners, it was on my list of countries I would never visit. But now, here I was in an unknown place. Vashka had found me a place to stay—the home of a friendly Muslim family. He told me he was hopeful that the man of the house, who was “not unsympathatic” towards Christianity, would eventually become a follower of Jesus.

Christ followers in this Muslim country are rare. Out of 2 million people, only an estimated 100 are believers who have no other alternative but to live their faith underground and worship in secrecy. None of these believers wanted to risk meeting me. Except one, a young lady, Allina*, who lived nearby. Vashka had arranged for us to meet the next day.

I couldn’t wait to spend some time with this sister in Christ and learn about her life as a Christian in Chechnya.

“I belong to Christ.”

The next day, Vashka picked me up and we were on our way to meet Allina. At one point, he dropped me off at a local business where he knew I would be safe while he drove to her village to check if it was okay to meet her there, Two hours later, he returned, telling me that the president was in Allina’s village.

“I’m glad we didn’t go there,” he said. “The bad news is that you can’t meet her there.”

I was really disappointed. I had come all this way and wouldn’t meet even one brother or sister? 

My discouragement quickly turned to joy with his next words. “I picked her up,” Vashka said. “She is in the car right now. You can meet her and ask her questions. But only for thirty minutes.”

I got in the car as fast as I could. Allina’s face looked pale and drawn, making it difficult to guess her age. Like most women in her country, she wore a headscarf. Almost immediately, she started to cry.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not always tactful when I talk to women, but I usually don’t make them cry when I meet them. I asked Vashka to pray for her in her own language. He did, and she visibly brightened up.

“I belong to Christ,” Allina suddenly said. “He protects me and takes care of me. When my husband was murdered during the war, I was left behind with four children. I have just come from the court. They have convicted me … .”

Vashka explained that as a widow from the war, Allina was supposed to receive benefits. “She signed for it, but she never got the money,” he said. “Now she is being accused of theft.”

Allina continued, “The judges sentenced me to several years in prison … But I don’t have to go to prison. It’s a suspended sentence. I still have children under the age of fourteen, so the judge had mercy on me.”

She switched to another subject: “When I was seventeen and on the playground with a lot of children and young people, an old man suddenly came up to me. He said, ‘You belong to Christ. When He comes back, you will be there, too.’ At the time, I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I never forgot it. Whenever I’m sad now, I remember those words. When I pray, I have the sense that someone in white clothing is standing next to me, and I have a feeling of peace.”

“I only knew Jesus from the Koran.”

In the past, Allina had never before experienced this kind of peace that comes from knowing Christ. She recalled a time when, in a bomb shelter, one of her sons found and showed her “a book about God.”

It was the New Testament.

“Mummy, you’ll certainly like this book,” he said. Allina started to read it, and one verse from Revelation really touched her heart: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me” (Rev. 3:20).

“I only knew Jesus from the Koran,” Allina explained. “I always felt drawn to Him. After I had read the Bible, I often looked up into the sky, and I knew that there was someone who loved me. Actually, of course, I already knew this when the man came to me in the schoolyard. And now when I’m sad, I think back on the times when the Lord Jesus has helped me.

Clearly, Allina has been traumatized by all she has endured. Falteringly, she told me what had happened to her husband. In 2002, when both the Russians and the Chechen rebels were sowing death and destruction, a group of men surrounded her husband. No one knows who they were, but evidently, they wanted to know if he had become a “believer.” According to Allina, he had not. At the time, they were both still “seeking.” Still, the men shot and killed Allina’s husband.

“I Now Know One Other Christian.”

Allina shared about her decision to become a believer and how it has changed her life in good and bad ways. Following her husband’s death, Christians abroad reached out to her to help and encourage her. Through their example and testimony, she became a follower of Christ. Then she did something few Chechen Christians do. She told her family and friends about her decision to turn away from Islam to follow Christ. 

“In the past, I had lots of friends,” she said. “Now they’ve all left me. My best friend would always support me. But even she betrayed me. Fortunately, I now know one other Christian.”

One Christian friend in a country with 2 million Muslims … one person you can be yourself with … one person with whom you can read the Bible or pray. 

Despite being rejected by her friends, Allina continues to share her faith: “God leads me to people, and He tells me who I should talk to about Him.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone is willing to accept what she says. People at work, she said, threatened to “stab her children in front of her eyes,” and hurled horrific comments like, “We will crucify you.”

Still, Allina does not hate her persecutors.

“No, I pray for them: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ The more they insulted and threatened me, the more I loved them. I even said, ‘I love you. In your hearts, you are very kind.’ I pray for my colleagues every day. My boss eventually fired my persecutors at work.”

“You must round it off,” Vashka suddenly said, bringing our time together to an end.

“Do you have any specific prayer requests?” I quickly asked Allina.

“Please pray that I really won’t have to go to prison. And pray that I can find a new flat. Someone else has offered more money for my flat, and now I have to get out. I’m praying, ‘Lord God, it doesn’t matter to me if I have to sleep in the street as long as my children have a roof over their heads!’ I don’t have enough money to buy winter clothes for my children either.”

“I Thank Him for You All.”

Vashka started the car and drove us toward the station in Grozny. As we rode, my mind flashed to a strange thought I had just before I had gotten in the car in Grozny.

“As a foreigner, you can’t go out in the streets in Grozny,” Vashka had told me. “I’ll get the meals. Leave your money at home.”

But I had been stubborn. If I am abducted, I thought, it might be better to have some money with me.

We arrived at the station. While Allina prepared to get out of the car, I took out my wallet and gave her 5,600 rubles, about $170. “This is not my money, I told her. “This is from the body of Christ in my country.”

I knew that God would send someone to help me,” Allina said, her voice quivering. She gently squeezed my hand. “I thank Him for you all.”

At that moment, I knew why God had laid on my heart this desire to go to Chechnya; why I was so stubborn about taking money with me; and why He had guided things in such a way that precisely today, I could have this meeting with Allina–not yesterday, not a day later. Today. From the beginning, it had been His intention to show Allina and me how great and mighty He is.

Here, in the back seat of a Soviet car so old, it was a miracle it still drove, in the midst of ruins, destruction and military checkpoints, we met. She, a widowed mother of four from Chechnya, and me a Dutch, married man and father of a one-year-old daughter. I gave her the money that God had promised her.

It wasn’t my money. It was yours and anyone who supports the persecuted church around the world through Open Doors. And it happened not only through my prayers but through the prayers of believers like you.

Chechen believers like Allina are enduring numerous trials as they live out their faith in Christ. Please pray that:

Want to read more about Jan Vermeer’s encounters with the persecuted church and the biblical lessons he has learned through these experiences? Download your free copy of his book, Why Do You Persecute Me?’