A notorious drug dealer-turned-underground pastor has shared how he embraced Christianity while imprisoned for his crimes after God revealed himself in an incredible way.
Persecution watchdog Open Doors USA tells the story of Viktor, a man who in the early 1990's ran a major drug operation covering Tajikistan to the state where he lived in Central Asia.
Viktor was so skilled at his job, he was offered the chance to smuggle drugs across the Afghanistan border as well, which would've expanded his operation into 3 countries.
His success came to a screeching halt when, in 1996, he was caught with nearly 9 pounds of heroin. Immediately, the young man was arrested and jailed.
While serving his lengthy prison sentence, Viktor became suicidal: "I felt empty inside and did not want to live anymore. I did not know how long I would be in jail," he recalled.
However, God had other plans for Viktor's life; one day, his jail mate received a package from his mom containing the New Testament Gospel of John. When his friend offered to let him read the book, Viktor refused.
But, Viktor couldn't sleep, and as his situation grew increasingly bleak, he finally picked up the book and began to flip through it.
At first, the Bible made little sense to Viktor. "Words like 'the Word was first and the Word was God' made no sense to me," he said. "What did it mean? I put it away and stopped reading."
The sleepless nights quickly resumed, and in a moment of exhaustion and desperation, Viktor once again turned to the Bible. This time, he couldn't stop reading.
"I read about eternal life." Viktor explained. "Reading about eternal life caught my attention. Thinking about it, I really desired eternal life, even more than I desired to be released from jail."
As he read, Viktor began to feel God's presence in an incredible way. "I did not know about prayer, but I called out to Jesus: 'You know I am not sure that you exist, but I want eternal life and I want to be born again,'" he said. "I continued reading in the Bible alone in my cell with no Christians around. It was just me and the book."
When fellow prisoners later tried to smuggle him a package of drugs, Viktor refused it and instead turned to his original package that contained the Gospel of John. "Looking at the drugs I knew that they would drive me insane. 'This is death!' I said. And looking at the Gospel I knew that it was life. I made the decision to choose life. I sent the drugs back."
During this time, Viktor received some bad news: doctors diagnosed him with a debilitating disease that they predicted would kill him within a year and a half. Instead of being devastated by his diagnosis, Viktor felt confident he would go to Heaven and began displaying a kind of joy his fellow inmates could not understand.
Amazingly, his disease didn't worsen. Overcome with gratitude, Viktor and others started a church, and began gathering in small groups, playing instruments, praying. Viktor soon began preaching to his fellow inmates over the prison's microphone system.
When Viktor was released from prison, he decided to continue his role as a pastor by attending a seminary Bible college. During his studies, he started to work among drug addicts in a rehab center and began sharing the Word of God with them. Today, he pastors an underground church in Central Asia, where he, along with several members of his congregation, work tirelessly to share the gospel with the local community.
"We realized it was not our own plan," Viktor told Open Doors. "God led us to this ministry. It is hard work and does not produce a high profit, but it works."
When asked how believers worldwide can pray for him, Viktor said, "Please do pray that my testimony and my life can bring many people to Christ, and pray also for my relatives."
The persecution of Christians runs rampant in some former Soviet states; in fact, Open Doors International listed Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan on its 2017 World Watch List of the 50 places where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.
Ranked 16th on the list, Uzbekistan is the most persecuting country in Central Asia, and in the Turkmenistan, (19th on the list) registering churches is nearly impossible, but not doing so results in raids, threats, arrests and fines, according to Open Doors. Importing or printing Christian materials is very restricted - literature is often confiscated.
Despite the challenges, missionaries with ministries in Central Asian countries have started hundreds of churches over the past three decades, according to Christian Aid Mission.
"If anything, opposition to Christianity, particularly evangelicals, has only spurred greater unity and commitment among believers in the region," notes CAM.
"Overcoming cultural misconceptions is an uphill battle, but ministry leaders are encouraged by a new generation of believers who sense the urgency to take the gospel to their own people while they can."