Like so many young people growing up in Central Asia, Ulzhan* was headed for destruction. Throughout the former Soviet countries, increasing numbers of youth are turning to alcohol and drugs. Ulzhan needed larger and larger quantities of alcohol and drugs to fill the hole in his soul. When Jesus came into his life through the church, everything changed. Life became meaningful.
Today, he serves God in often very stressful circumstances in Central Asia. Open Doors recently spoke to the now underground church leader at a secret location. In this rare interview, Ulzhan reveals how God grabbed hold of his heart, how he fiercely prayed for his Muslim parents, and how God uses persecution to grow His Church.
Can you share with us how you came to faith?
My grandmother was an Orthodox Christian. She had a big impact on me. She was so nice and prayed diligently. She really took good care of me. She was quite rich for Soviet standards but never counted her money. Instead, she used it to bless others, including me.
But my life slipped away after I came back from serving the army at age 20. Life just didn’t have any purpose. I did what so many young people do in Central Asia: I drank a lot of alcohol and used drugs to make me feel better. I started using drugs when I was 14 years old. My friends and I lived for that kind of fun. Later, I worked as a bodyguard. Some girls came up to my client and told him: ‘We believe in Jesus Christ. He is our Savior!’ They invited him to go to church. But he told them he was a Muslim and suggested they invite his bodyguard.
I was a Muslim too! Not a very strong one, of course. I agreed to go to church with them. I got a Bible and went to church. That church showed me there was a different way—that life had meaning. Within one month, I didn’t drink, smoke or use drugs anymore. My friends stopped seeing me because I was no longer fun to hang out with. They even warned me, “You are a very strange believer! You go to a sect! Stop visiting that church if you know what’s good for you!”
How did your parents respond when you became a believer?
My relationship with my parents was never very good. That’s why I spent so much time with my grandmother. My parents were always busy working. The problems I had with them continued to be the same. There were many quarrels. They didn’t like that I had become a Christian.
What did you do?
I prayed for many years. Fifteen years for my mother, then she became a believer. I had to pray even longer for my father, 21 years. He became a follower of Christ only one year before his death.
What about your friends? Did you pray for them too?
Of course. I didn’t see them very often. Two or three of them have come to faith since then. Some died of sickness. The others, I have no information about.
Can you tell us about your current ministry?
I wish I could. I trust you but not these walls.
Do you feel comfortable sharing about what God is doing in Central Asia?
Yes. In the last six years, God has really surprised me. It’s not because of anything that I have done; it’s all His work. So many people have come to faith. People of so many different backgrounds and social conditions. I see this movement of God in my life and in the lives of people around me. It’s incredible. I’m really grateful to be in this ministry, and I’m so grateful for your support and prayers. It’s a great comfort to know that other people know about our difficulties.
What’s the one thing our brothers and sisters outside Central Asia should know?
How good Jesus is. There is no other name than His. He is the only Savior. I’m in my 40s now, but this is all I have to share. Jesus is the focus. He is supreme. Nothing is more important than the soul of a person. It doesn’t matter how we share the gospel, only that we do it. Explain that we are saved through the name of Jesus. Share this news wherever you can.
You are so right, and this will be an encouragement for our supporters. But please help us understand the plight of believers in your country too so that we can pray better. For example, what’s the most heartbreaking story you’ve heard?
Please don’t think I’m a hero. The praise should go to others. There was one sister. Let’s call her Nadia. She took care of her sick husband and their three children. One day the police came to threaten her because she was an underground small group leader. They took her to the police station and didn’t give her any food or water, she wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet, and they violated her.
They wanted her to give away sensitive information, such as the names of other Christians. She would lose her future and her family if they sent her to prison. Then they even threatened to harm her children who were only 15, 12 and 2. It was very disturbing and frightening to her.
What did she do?
She didn’t give them any names, but it was a real nightmare. The police questioned her every day, saying, “If you don’t tell us who you work with, we won’t allow your children to go to school anymore!”
Actually, she had been arrested on an outreach with her oldest son. Of course, he wasn’t as strong as his mother. And after one day without food, water and toilet, he was tortured too. They pulled his hair and tried to break his hand. They wanted names, and he told the police my name.
Were you arrested?
The police came to search my house, but I don’t keep sensitive materials at my home. They couldn’t find anything. Yet, they still gave me a huge fine. It was a very hard time for all of us. Especially for Nadia and her family. In the end, the police gave up and released Nadia and her son.
Why do you think God allows this kind of persecution to happen?
Okay, let me preach for a little bit. God is our Father. Whenever He teaches us, He is preparing us for something important. We are not weak plants unable to survive on their own. We have been planted by Him for a purpose. We have to fulfill His will in this place.
Look, Jesus became obedient through suffering, right? We are not better than Jesus. We need to learn obedience through suffering as well. He won’t spare us the suffering. We are His children, and this suffering is a kind of training for us. After going through problems, suffering and persecution, we too wonder sometimes: Why do we still do this ministry? Is it worth it? We like comfort, but we have so many problems. But then we also experience His love, and all we want is to get to know Him even better. And the truth is that we learn more about Him when we suffer.
It’s what the Bible teaches.
Of course. Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” We will forget negative emotions, but His love will never pass away. One day we will face Him in Heaven, and we will not only thank Him for times of prosperity but especially for how we experienced Him during times of suffering.
How often do you preach a message like this to other persecuted believers?
I’m quite high profile, so I can’t work too openly. Instead, I train others to share messages like this with other Christians. They need to understand and live the truth. You have to understand that the church in Central Asia is very young and inexperienced, but how to stay strong and trust in God when life is difficult is one of the first things believers should learn.
Of course, it’s human to ask: Why God? Why did you allow this to happen? But it’s the wrong question. We should ask: What for, Lord? It’s all about His plan and His purpose we need to align ourselves to. Many young believers don’t understand this yet. They don’t know that we are His ambassadors. They don’t know that there is glory, and there is suffering. We should pray according to the words of the apostle Peter, who says that our problems are there to test us and help us grow in faith. So pray that you grow stronger in faith and remember that comfort comes after suffering.
How can we best pray for you?
Pray for strength and for my health. Also pray for more time and opportunities to serve the Lord.
Ulzhan is one of many partners Open Doors visits, trains and supports in Central Asia. People like him are responsible for literature distribution, training of believers and practical help in the form of temporary shelters, micro-credits and vocational training.
The Central Asian church has a desire to make a difference in the lives of others, especially those who are addicted to drugs, alcohol and smoking, homeless people, widows and orphans. Through Open Doors programs, we support churches doing this type of ministry.
*Representative names and photo changed for security reasons