Pastor Azatyan proclaims God's presence in Ukraine


Eastern Europe

René Zeeman, RD

Ukrainian airstrike survivor keeps visiting war-torn hometown near Russian positions. Despite the horrors of the war, pastor Azatyan keeps preaching God's mercy. Photo EPA, Kateryna Klochko

The grief among the people of the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya is great. Yet, pastor Azat Azatyan maintains that God is merciful. "There is much suffering, but He is always near," he says.

The 41-year-old Azatyan, as his name makes clear, is originally from Armenia. In 1993, he moved to Ukraine with his parents, his two brothers and a sister. "Because of the war with Azerbaijan, there was hunger in our country," Azatyan tells during a visit to Holland.

Azat Azatyan. Photo Marc Kortleven

His parents have since died. He lost contact with his brothers. "They went to live in Russia. They thought they would have a better life in Vladimir Putin's empire. That has not happened to date. Since the Russian invasion in February 2022, I have been getting curses hurled at my head, and I don't speak to them. My sister, who also went to Russia, I still speak to."

Do you not regret staying in Ukraine?

"No, I see that I have made the right choice. I see God's presence and His blessing in my life. I am where I need to be."

The big turning point in Azatyan's life came in 2007 when he fell seriously ill. "I thought I was going to die. God, however, extended my life. Due to open tuberculosis, I was seriously ill. I weighed only 52 kilograms. I was coughing up blood, had a hole in my lungs, and I had already given up. But God saved me."

Bystanders spoke of a miracle. Azatyan understood that too but had not yet realised it was from God. "Later, when I heard the Gospel, confessed my sins and came to faith, I understood Who had healed me and saved my life. Now I get to bear witness of God's mercy."


Azatyan received an inner calling to evangelise. "People need to hear the Good News. They need to know that there is a possibility of being saved. As much as we may want an earthly life, it is finite."

Since then, Azatyan combined working as a construction contractor with propagating the Gospel. He was affiliated with the Baptists in Berdjansk, a port city a short distance from Mariupol. Azatyan preached in several churches, as well as on the streets. In between, he worked as a construction worker, putting bread on the table. "We were even able to build up reserves. However, our lives were turned upside down when the Russians invaded Ukraine in February 2022."

Were you surprised by the Russian attack?

"Yes, although something had been in the air since November 2021 because of the Russian troop build-up on the border with Ukraine. You knew something was waiting for us. I just expected the invasion to come from one side. It didn't. The country was attacked from the north, east and south. The whole country was at war."

Berdjansk was soon occupied by Russian troops. Azatyan drew on his financial reserves to help others. "We received people and gave them food. By the way, that was a joint work. More people helped."

Azatyan was only more visible as he transported Ukrainian soldiers who wanted to flee through a corridor to the free part of Ukraine. "Families of soldiers we evacuated as well. The Russians had lists of soldiers' names and were looking for their families. The women were at risk of being raped or killed."

How did the Russians get the lists of names? Were there traitors among the Ukrainians?

"That may indeed be the case. But they also captured and tortured people to get names. It could also be that Russia managed to put people in certain positions before the war."

This creates a poisoned atmosphere in society.

"That's right. Ukrainians could not and cannot trust anyone anymore. People erase history on their mobile phones all the time. If you are arrested, they check everything. The population constantly lives under high stress."

Azatyan experienced first-hand what it means to be interrogated. "In Berdjansk, I ended up in a basement a year ago. From the first day, the torture began. Constantly, they asked me: 'Where are the partisans? Where are the weapons? Who is your client? By what name are you known to the resistance? How much money do you charge the people you evacuate?""


The Baptist pastor tells it calmly now, "but that was definitely not me at the time". The beatings he received for 43 days left his teeth loose. Electric shocks damaged his intestines. His right leg still hurts when standing up and walking. "That should work itself out," he says.

During the day, according to Azatyan, the interrogations were still doable. "In the evening and at night, they were the most gruesome. One night, before the interrogations were to begin, my cellmates said, "You are not a true believer; otherwise, God would not have allowed you to end up here." I replied that my God did not promise me that everything in my life would be smooth sailing but that He would always be with me. With that, they told me they were scared and asked if I would pray for them."

Azatyan prayed to God for them, but he forgot to ask for himself. "That night, the torture was particularly severe. They attached the electric wires not only to my legs but also to my genitals. The humiliation was great. Apart from the familiar questions, they now wanted to know who I served. To this, I replied that I was serving God. Then one of them said, "We'll write that down: principal God." What kind of God do you serve, they asked. I shouted out: "A Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Because I am a Baptist, they said I was a traitor to the faith, an American spy."


His interrogators left Azatyan in his cell for dead. From the prison, however, he was able to drink rain via a plastic pipe and a cable channel. "After torture with electric shock, all you want to do is drink. I asked the Lord for water. He gave rain in the city so I could drink. I felt God's presence at that moment."

When it got light, he had to come along again. Later, on the 43rd day of his captivity. he was brought to the interrogation room again. Azatyan prayed to God if He would help him. "I did not know what awaited me. Then, an officer from the security service came in. He asked what I would do if I was released. To that, I replied that I would go to my wife and children in Zaporizhia. He asked how long I would need for that. I said, "Twenty-four hours." The officer explained: It appears that you have been well prayed for, and that is why we are releasing you."

First, Azatyan still had to write and sign a statement that the Russian Federation had not caused him any physical or psychological harm. He supposedly received back the items taken from him when he was arrested. "That, of course, was not the case," he said. A few days later, Azatyan was back with his wife and children.

The question, of course, was how reliable were you still?

"When the Russians released me, they told me that what had been done to me was only crumbs compared to what awaited me with the Ukrainians. That's why I was afraid to return. I was prepared for the worst, but I wanted to return to my family. The Ukrainian security service interrogated me several times, including with a lie detector. I was not tortured. Then they let me go."

After his release, Azatyan is only an evangelist. In Zaporizja, he runs a drop-in centre where 600 children receive weekly tutoring, where Sunday school is held on Saturdays and where services will be convened on Sundays after his return to Zaporizja. "Here, mainly the children's parents come. Often, they have a Ukrainian Orthodox background. In practice, this means they are Christian in name only."

What do you give to the people you meet?

"God's mercy, His love."

Despite all the suffering and sadness they know in their lives?

"Yes, despite all this. God is always near, in happy and in sad days."

How do you look at the war?

"It is difficult to answer that. I often get to the front, and then my shoes are wet not only from the rain but sometimes from the blood that has been shed.

Every war ends with peace. We pray for peace. And God hears the prayers. But sometimes, His answers don't seem like what we ask for. Who are we that we would go against that? Are we willing to expect peace for Ukraine while losing the war? I find that hard to accept, especially when you look at the homes destroyed, the children orphaned and the parents who have lost their children. At the same time, God's justice will always prevail."

Do you also pray the Lord's Prayer?


That says: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

"We also pray for the Russians. During my captivity and torture, I also prayed for them because they don't know what they are doing. I believe God has the power to convert Russians. Are Russians sinful? Yes, but so are Ukrainians. God wants all people to be saved."

This article was translated by CNE.news and published by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on December 11, 2023



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