As we mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, celebrations of victory are tempered by the fact that it cost 50 million lives, which puts the present coronavirus crisis in perspective. Among those were six million Jews who were cold-bloodedly murdered as the Nazis tried to eradicate their race.
Amazingly, however, Bulgaria’s Jewish population was saved – in no small part due to the intervention of their Chief Rabbi, who also happened to be a follower of Yeshua (Jesus).
All of which makes it particularly tragic to have to record the solemn news of modern Israel’s first Messianic martyr¹, beaten to death in a horrific attack just weeks ago. I will say more about this later.
It wasn’t until I watched the intriguing BBC TV pilgrimage series, The Road to Istanbul, featuring a group of celebrities sampling this tough adventure through glorious countryside while engaged in deep discussion of a religious nature, that I first heard the story of how Bulgaria’s 50 000 Jews had survived the Holocaust.
I recall that former government minister Edwina Currie, one of the intrepid group and herself Jewish, had given a brief outline of how it happened. But more recently, with the help of contacts in Jerusalem², the remarkable story came to light in all its glory.
Although an ally of Germany, Bulgaria resisted all pressure to send her Jews to the camps in Poland – and not one was lost to Hitler’s clutches. The country’s Chief Rabbi, Daniel Tzion, became a disciple of Jesus through reading the New Testament, backed up by some extraordinary personal experiences. He befriended the capital city of Sofia’s Eastern Orthodox Church leader, and though Tzion maintained a Torah-observant lifestyle, his faith in Yeshua became a well-known “secret”.
In 1943, under German pressure, the Bulgarian government decided to deport the country’s Jews, but the Church came to their aid and petitioned the king, Boris III, who was a friend of Hitler, not to comply with Nazi demands.
Rabbi Daniel himself begged the king, in the name of Yeshua, not to give in, adding that Jesus had appeared to him in a vision and told him to warn the king along these lines.
Under German occupation, meanwhile, the rabbi became an object of persecution and ridicule and was publicly flogged in front of Sofia’s Great Synagogue. But King Boris stood his ground and, in open defiance of the Reich, refused to hand over his country’s Jews. The brave monarch died just a few days later of a mysterious illness, the unofficial version of the story being that Hitler had poisoned him.
So it was that in 1949, Daniel and most of Bulgaria’s Jewish community emigrated to Israel. But because of his belief in Jesus, the rabbi was taken to a Rabbinical Court and stripped of his title. However, the Bulgarian Jews continued to honour him and he, in turn, continued to honour his Lord as he led a congregation in Jaffa. He even wrote hundreds of songs in praise of Jesus, the Sabbath and the good life before he died in 1979 aged 96, just as Israel’s Messianic movement was beginning to germinate.
Tragically, we have now witnessed its first modern-day martyr. A 75-year-old believer was recently beaten to death with a brick, taking the blows initially directed at his wife.³ He was not a high-profile evangelist, but an unobtrusive Englishman. As a neighbour tried to intervene, the killer excused his actions by declaring: “They’re missionaries!” His lawyer subsequently defended him on the basis that a “Messianic cult” had been harassing him. Police reportedly then raided the victims’ apartment for further “evidence” of the so-called cult’s activities.
For a nation that prides itself as being the only true democracy in the Middle East, the response of its authorities to this incident is disgraceful. It seems that, as in other Western countries including Britain, there is generally no discrimination against anyone – except believers in Jesus!
Have we now come full circle since the days of Jesus and His first followers, with false evidence gathered against them? Stephen, the first martyr for Christ, was stoned to death; now a modern brick is used.
Stephen forgave his killers, praying that the Lord would not hold it against them. In the same way, the Messianic victim’s family has expressed forgiveness for the murderer.
As Shani Ferguson wrote in a report for Maoz Israel, the attack was carried out because the victims (the wife suffered severe injury) represented Yeshua. “It’s as painful and as simple as that,” she said. The word “missionary” is a term of abuse in Israel these days, particularly among the more religious Orthodox sector. Indeed, it was the religious leaders – his fiercest opponents – whom Jesus reminded of the Psalmist’s statement: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42, quoting Psalm 118:22). Jesus is the only sure foundation on which to build our lives. Nations too need to take that on board, especially Israel, for He is their Messiah!
²I am indebted to Rev David Pileggi and to an original article by Joseph Shulam – see www.torahtime.org/studies/ & www.netivyah.org
³The couple’s identity is being withheld in the interests of the community’s ongoing safety