Full Story: Hooligan to Hunted: Becoming a “100 Most Wanted” Criminal for Witnessing About Christ

Full Story: Hooligan to Hunted: Becoming a “100 Most Wanted” Criminal for Witnessing About Christ

As a child, Max dreamed of following his father’s career path into the KGB or of joining the military, both prestigious professions in post-Soviet Central Asia. But at age 12, he learned something that changed the way he viewed himself. “I heard that I was adopted,” Max explained. “My biological parents left me. In our culture, it’s a huge shame. I lost any hope for the future.” Max vowed revenge against his biological parents. He also began to pray for a way out of his hopeless life. “Every night I prayed, ‘Let me die tonight. I don’t want to face tomorrow. Every day for me is dark.’


Waking up each morning with that darkness still in his heart, Max picked fights and  became a hooligan. “All that time, I longed for peace in my heart.” In his search for peace, Max became a devout Muslim, visiting a local mosque four times a week, looking for answers. What he received instead was chastisement and scorn from the imam.


At that time, Max learned that he had two brothers who had served jail time for petty crimes. This reality shattered Max’s dream of joining the police or military.


In early 2000, a friend Max had met at a gym encouraged him to question Islam. Tursyn, a Christian, had experienced the same pressures as 20-year-old Max, but something powerful had changed his life. Tursyn saw God in a new way and asked Max thought-provoking questions, though he didn’t initially mention Jesus Christ. Then Tursyn said something that touched the deep longing in Max’s heart: “Max, you know, the only one God loves you.”


“I heard for the first time about God’s love,” Max recalled. “How could a holy God love me if even my biological parents left me and didn’t love me? Islam never talks about God’s love. That concept was completely new.”


Tursyn’s powerful message stayed with Max; later, he asked more about God. Tursyn gladly told of Jesus Christ and the salvation offered through faith in Him. On April 22 — once celebrated in Soviet countries as the birthday of Lenin — Tursyn prayed with Max as Max repented, placed his faith in Christ, and celebrated a new birth as a child of God. “I felt that something changed immediately in my life,” Max said. “I slept well and was so happy!”

Max and his family were granted asylum in Sweden and have since gained citizenship. He leads Bible studies and proclaims the gospel in a multiethnic Muslim community.

A more profound change took place when Max read in the Bible that Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies. Max still struggled to forgive his biological parents. “I said, ‘God, I promised from my childhood that I would punish them; after that, I will obey all of Your Word.’” But when he met his biological mother, his childhood vow of vengeance yielded to the same grace and forgiveness God had shown him. “When I met with her, I forgave her.”


At the time of Max’s conversion, the government routinely tried to infiltrate Biblical churches, hoping to gather information so they could arrest and imprison Christians. Before being allowed to attend a church, therefore, a new Christian was often required by other Christians to spend a few months being discipled to ensure that he or she was not a spy. But Max couldn’t wait to tell others how God’s grace had changed him, so he began to share the Gospel before he had even started attending church. “The one thing I knew that I met with the living God,” he said. “And I shared my testimony everywhere.”


Max’s boldness began to attract attention, and a local imam warned his parents that they would be shunned by the community if their son continued going “the wrong way.” While Max’s father acknowledged the positive change in his son’s life, he was concerned about the imam’s warning, a serious threat in their clan-based culture. He suggested that Max keep the life change without following Christ, but Max flatly rejected the idea. They struck an agreement: His father would read the New Testament, and if he found anything wrong with it, Max would burn the Bible. A year later, Max’s father, mother, wife and siblings had all placed their faith in Christ.


At this time, a small number of registered Protestant churches were tolerated, but Biblical Christians in unregistered churches were often fined and detained for holding worship services. When neighbors heard the sound of worship coming from Max’s apartment during a house church meeting, they reported it to police.


Max was detained, interrogated and fined the equivalent of 10 months’ wages for his evangelistic work. When he failed to pay the fine, he was summoned to court and sent to the office of a court enforcer named Miras, who had the power to send Max to prison or assign him to a work detail cleaning the city. Miras questioned and bullied Max yet Max was compelled to preach to his interrogator. As Miras saw Max’s boldness and strong faith, his heart softened, he became gentler, and eventually let Max go unpunished. Upon his release, Max told Miras, “I will pray for you. God bless you. Jesus loves you!”


Between 2001 and 2007, the police, KGB and government prosecutors interrogated Max more than 50 times. He was summoned to appear in court eight times on various charges, including involvement in terrorist groups, despite clear evidence that the former “hooligan” had been transformed into a man of peace and joy.


Throughout those years, outreach efforts by Max and other faithful Christians produced abundant fruit. The number of underground house churches grew rapidly. “The persecution helped us to be strong and share the Gospel even more fervently,” Max said. However, the explosive growth fueled increasing government opposition.


In August 2007, Max was arrested again; this time, officials confiscated all his official documents. Max’s attorney told him that his freedom—even his very life— were in danger. Max’s best chance was to go someplace safer and hope the government would eventually grant him amnesty. Upon his release, Max was forced to flee—without his confiscated documents and alone, leaving his pregnant wife and two young sons to follow him later.


In the middle of the night of August 9, 2007, Max headed to a neighboring country. After crossing the border, a Christian family arranged the next leg of Max’s journey—120 km in a shared taxi. To Max’s dismay, the other passenger was a police officer on his way to take up a new post. “I was praying fervently,” Max said.


Ten minutes into the trip, the taxi came to a security checkpoint, where Max expected to be arrested if asked for his ID. When the soldiers saw the other passenger’s police insignia designating his high rank, they waved the car through. “This policeman,” Max said, “was an angel sent by God.”


Having reached his destination, Max, now an undocumented refugee, continued his evangelism and house-church ministry. One day, however, he unexpectedly and fearfully encountered Miras, the court enforcer from his first arrest. Quick to ease Max’s fears, Miras explained, “When you shared the Gospel with me, it changed my heart. I am a Christian now!” A relationship begun with persecution became a partnership in the Gospel, as Max soon became Miras’s mentor.


The evidence of Max’s persecution in his home country was so compelling that Max was advised to seek official refugee status, which he and his family were granted. The status did not guarantee his safety, so friends carefully guarded his whereabouts while bringing his family to join him in May 2008. They traveled under cover of night, changed cars repeatedly, and took circuitous routes. Even these precautions weren’t enough.

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This Bible, smuggled in and out of Max’s prison cell, provided strength and comfort during his months of imprisonment.

Three days after the family’s arrival, the secret service agents of his home country and local police officers broke into his home and abducted Max. The government of the country where Max had found refuge intended to return Max to his home country.


Max’s wife immediately contacted international refugee organizations. As media attention intensified, the local government decided to release him from the secret jail where he had been detained prior to deportation. News of Max’s abduction prompted several countries to offer him and his family sanctuary. Max fasted and prayed for 36 days before telling his family, “We will stay here. God will be with us.”


Unfortunately, in January 2010, the local government announced the deportation of all refugees. Those, like Max, without passports had an uncertain future. On September 5, Max was arrested again. Meanwhile, authorities of his home country increased the severity of his charges, claiming he was the mastermind of a terrorist cell, and listed him among their “100 Most Wanted” criminals. Max assumed that deportation and “disappearance” were imminent. In jail, he waited and prayed, thinking he would never see his family again, but a worldwide prayer movement, public protests, international negotiations, and political pressure from other countries changed that outcome.


On December 4, 2010, Max was released and driven straight to the airport to his waiting family and Christian friends who had come to pray. Less than 24 hours after stepping out of jail, Max walked into an apartment in a Western country that would be his family’s new home.


There, Max and his wife continued to reach out to the multiethnic Muslim community. Max also joined a global Christian organization to lead its Turko-Russian ministries, which cover 230 million people and 37 languages, including the Turkic languages spoken in his homeland.


When Max teaches Christians, he explains that persecution is a blessing because of the fruit it produces and its ability to grow one’s faith. Max prepares others for the likelihood of persecution so they can face it with hope. “Persecution is not new,” he said, “but nobody [has been able] to destroy God’s children.”

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Max (top row center on the poster) was falsely accused of leading a terrorist cell and listed as one of the “100 Most Wanted” in one Central Asian country.