Worthy Christian News » Christian Persecution » Christian Persecution - Russia & Former USSR » Comfort to Beslan from Zion
October 5, 2004
Jerusalem, Israel (Worthy News) -- Pastor Bradley Antolovich, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Jerusalem and father of five, watched helplessly as the horror at Beslan School #1 unfolded on television and various internet clips. The thought that these children could be his own welled up in him an unquenchable drive to reach out by going there. Simultaneously, two pastors in Moscow -- Kostia Kretov and Kevin Macken -- were also moved to go and comfort the survivors from the school and the minister to the families who lost loved ones in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia.
As the hostage situation ended in the senseless massacre of over 600 school children, teachers, and their relatives, the world quickly moved on to other news. Meanwhile, our small team of five from For Zionâ€™s Sake Ministries / Calvary Chapel Jerusalem prepared to embark for southern Russia with only a few days planning. In keeping with the Lordâ€™s great commission, we were going out from Jerusalem to comfort the afflicted with the love of Jesus and to provide monetary aid collected from our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
BACKGROUND AND BACKLASH
Beslan knows war and tragedy all too well. This beautiful city bordered by the Caucasus Mountains is surrounded by a deceptively serene and picturesque pastoral life. The Caucasus region is one of the most ethnically diverse and volatile areas in the world. As the only Christians (Orthodox) among dozens of Muslim tribes, the Ossetians have long been the Russianâ€™s key ally. Many analysts fear the massacre in Beslan will fan the embers of ethnic hatred into all out war. With the Russian army entangled in nearby Chechnya, Moscowâ€™s ability to halt such a bloodletting is highly doubtful.
The aftermath of the terror attack on Beslan School #1 left an estimated 650 dead and missing, half of them children. For three days the hostages were denied food or water, forcing many to drink their own urine.
On that first day of schoolâ€”a day that should have marked a happy milestone in their young livesâ€”these innocent little ones came face to face with evil.
The terrorists executed the men immediately, while many teachers were slain as they threw children out of the broken windows of the gym, a desperate measure that saved many lives. Left without their protectors, sick adults coldly murdered helpless children; often killed while praying and holding little crosses. Before they were slaughtered, many were tortured, dismembered, and even raped. Most of the children who survived the three hellish days escaped naked because of the heat in the gym and other torture they endured.
ENTERING THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
Flying from Moscow to Nalchik and driving on to Beslan, we stopped first at the schoolâ€”an eerie experience at four in the morning, but our native hosts insisted we do so. It was fitting as our team sought to enter the darkness of Beslan boldly with the light of the Gospel. Immediately visible were thousands of water bottles and flowers lining the perimeter of the school. Surprisingly, there were no restrictions upon the areas we were allowed to see; the school was as it was the day of the horrible tragedy. Scores of tiny pairs of shoes were cast about, and blood ran from ceiling to floor, and the remains of one of the suicide bombers were left to rot. The wires from which many bombs hung remained strung between the basketball hoops. The numerous mines planted beneath the gym floor further revealed that the terrorists were bent on mass execution from the beginning. Every room in the school was completely destroyed, and every family was affected by this massacre. It was like walking onto a battlefield and the reverent ambiance was rivaled only by our next encounter.
FROM SCHOOLYARD TO GRAVEYARD
The new Beslan cemetery appeared overnight and witnessed hundreds of funerals daily. Hundreds of recently filled graves were matched by an equal number of open graves waiting for bodies to be identified. The smell of death permeated the air.
As we wept and paid our respects to those attending the unceasing funerals, we met a woman who lost three of her four children in the massacre. Two were already buried, one was still missing; the one who survived did not attend school that day. Turning from her childrenâ€™s graves to greet us, she smiled and ministered to us. She rejoiced that her girls were with Jesusâ€”testimony to the comfort that only He gives to those who mourn. It gave us the strength we needed to boldly share the gospel as we began our home visits.
The Lord guided us to victimsâ€™ and survivorsâ€™ homes, local hospitals, government agencies, and churches where we provided financial assistance, bibles, and Christian literature and music in Russian to everyone we met. One apartment building alone lost over thirty-five children. Streets that were once noisy and full of life were now quiet, and those walking them meandered without purpose clad in black garments. Every home we entered openly and thankfully listened to the Gospel of Christ. Suffering survivors and those grieving over losses of in some cases all of their loved ones related to the story of Job. Although humanitarian aid and financial contributions were coming into Beslan from around the world, we were startled to learn that we were the only Christians going house to house to console the mourning.
HOPE FROM THE ASHES
Eyewitnesses who escaped the school told of child martyrs, hero teachers, and courageous neighbors. As one boy clutched his cross, a terrorist ordered him to take it off. He refused, stood up, and boldly proclaimed, â€œJesus Christ is risen,â€ whereupon he was shot dead. All who were spared give glory to God and confess that they did not cease to pray for three straight days.
One story of redemption is of Madina and Marina, two sisters who were rescued from the school. As we presented them with bibles, Pastor Kostia quoted John 3:16 to the girls. Madina found the place in her new bible and noted it with a bookmark to read again later. When one of the local believers, Gocha, who was also our host in Beslan, asked the girls if they wanted to receive Christ, they eagerly accepted! We joyfully shared the future and hope and plan that God has for their lives.
Approaching one home with the awesome burden of trying to comfort a grieving family of a child, we learned their boy had survived, praise God! The casualty list provided to us by the teachersâ€™ committee was incorrect. He shared his escape with us. Instead of just making a blind dash to safety, he calmly waited until the terrorists stopped shooting to reload their guns. Then he ran to the closest house, broke in, and went immediately to the refrigerator for food and water. We rejoiced with his family over the Godâ€™s protection of his life; no one spoke of the lack of food and water during the siege.
We also heard about eleven year old Alina. She and seven other children from her class died together on that first day of school. Mercifully, her older brother Sasha (16) survived because he was late. Upon arriving and seeing the terrorists, he ran away. Their grandmother is a believer who attends the local Baptist church, but Alina was forbidden to go to church with her or to read from her bible. Alinaâ€™s grandmother confidently told that this precious girl believed in Jesus and how she would find her reading her bible in secret. Although this little one was murdered, the family was thankful her body had not been burned so they could have an open casket funeral. Except for her grandmother, Alinaâ€™s home lacks love; the only family photos exhibiting any life in them are of this little girl.
God opened the doors wide to the main hospital in Vladikavkaz, where we visited survivors both in the childrenâ€™s and adult wards. As Jumbol, a local brother with the gift of evangelism, preached the gospel to them, many opened their hearts to the Lord, and even head doctors and nurses listened without interruption.
As our mission ended we had ministered the Gospel, given bibles and monetary aid to more than fifty families. We consoled them, prayed for them, and in some cases prayed with them to receive Jesus. We encouraged those whose faith was somewhat shipwrecked by what happened at the school. Everywhere we went in Beslan people expressed their gratitude for our help. And we gave the glory to God.
THE DARK SECRETS OF BESLAN
Amongst the rural beauty of North Ossetia, great evil oppresses its people and countless others within the former Soviet Union. Beslan produces about 80% of Russiaâ€™s vodka, contributing to rampant alcoholism among men and women who possess no hope for the future. In addition, many of the young aged 18-25 are involved in the trafficking and abuse of heroin. The area has experienced deadly avalanches, floods, a tuberculosis epidemic, while a powerful local mafia and corruption among the police.
While the ancient remains of mountainside castles evoke the age of kings, pagan places of idol worship line the countryside. The Ossetian people bow and worship trees in a holy forest thought to have magically sprung up to protect one of their deities from his enemies. The tradition of baking cakes to demon spirits and welcoming them into their homes is still a widespread custom.
Another dark ancient Ossetian customâ€”the law of vengeanceâ€”runs as deep as the centuries old ethnic conflict with the Chechens and Ingushins. Forgiveness is unheard of, even among family members. The calls for revenge by local men we heard are not idle talk; following the customary forty days of mourning they plan to take up vengeance.
ONLY A BEGINNING
Having just returned to Jerusalem, For Zionâ€™s Sake is already planning follow up trips. Our prayer is that the Lord would establish a work in Beslan. The Lord has done so much already to cement our new co-labor with local brothers and hosts who desire to carry on with home visits, begin a bible study, and deliver continued financial assistance. Jumbol and Gocha, the native North Ossetian evangelists, plan to reach out to at least fifty more families and continue to console and disciple those we already visited. Much remains to be done among these people who are now so open to the Word of God. Pray the Lord will give them the strength to forgive their enemies and do good to them. Pray He would turn them from their idolatrous ways and that the true light of the Gospel would shine forth brightly in Beslan.
This was a missions trip like none from our group had experienced, even for pastors who have been in the ministry for many years. The openness to the gospel in North Ossetia is unprecedented. The privilege to mourn with those who mourn, and to visit orphans and widows in their trouble has forever changed the lives of all of us who were sent. We were and are constantly reminded: â€œThere is no pride in mourning.â€ The humbleness of the people we served alongside and ministered to impacted us immeasurably.
â€œBlessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.â€ - II Corinthians 1:3-4