Franz is an extremely happy and positive individual who trusts God to see him through difficult situations. He shared his story with me when I was in Ukraine in February 1999, telling me of the frightening circumstances which developed in Tajikistan in 1996-1997, which evolved into the necessary evacuation of about 200 Sabbatarians to Ukraine.
There are two Islamic factions in Tajikistan, the Sunnis and the Shiites. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, civil war broke out in Tajikistan almost immediately. The leaders of each faction would conduct a prayer and then tell their followers: “we need to kill our enemies.” This meant anyone who did not hold to their beliefs. So they would pray and go out and start killing. About one hundred people per day were being killed in guerilla activity.
Among the Christian sects in Tajikistan, the Sabbatarians were particularly disliked by the Muslims. The windows in their meeting place were broken and they heard the threat that “one grenade will take care of all of them.” Many atrocities were taking place, and the Sabbatarians found it necessary to flee Tajikistan in order to live and worship without threats to their lives. So it was in this climate that they began the exodus to Ukraine.
Some of the Sabbatarians were able to sell their homes before leaving Tajikistan for between $1,200 and $2,500. Some of them just had to walk away from their homes and most could only take on the trip what they could carry. A large percentage of what they did have went to pay for their transportation to Ukraine—more than a three thousand-mile journey. In the winter, Dushanbe, the city of their exodus is accessible only by train or plane, being surrounded by mountains. Most of the refugees left by train, though taking the train is very dangerous—the refugees had to blockade the doors to the cars they were in to keep out criminals.
We all know the story of Moses and how he chose to recognize his Hebrew heritage at the expense of being rejected by Egyptian royalty. He could have chosen the opposite and rejected his Hebrew heritage. Down through the centuries, many of God’s people have had to make choices regarding lifestyle, employment opportunities, and sometimes more encompassing situations. Often these choices mean they have given up more luxurious lifestyles and lucrative careers, or have had to flee for their lives. These choices have been made willingly in order to serve God and His people, rather than to serve self.
Franz and his wife and eight children, ranging in age from eight months to 20, were the last to leave. They remained until all the others had safely departed. He sold his home on a Friday and went to the airport ticket office to buy tickets for a Sunday flight as conditions were becoming very dangerous.
The person at the ticket office took his phone number—something they do not usually do. When Franz arrived home he received a call that he had left two of the children’s birth certificates at the ticket office. If the person hadn’t taken his phone number, they would not have been able to reach him by phone on Friday, and then they would have had to try to track him down another way. They would not have been able to locate him on the Sabbath because he was at church. The ticket office is not open on Sunday, so they would not have been able to board their flight without the two birth certificates. They left with only some suitcases, which contained mostly food for their trip, and some extra clothes.
Shortly after they departed, the rebels took over the airport.
The Choice Is Made
Despite all the trials and persecution that Franz and his congregation have gone through, Franz always has a ready smile and places all his trust in God to see them through. The most amazing thing to me about Franz Klassen is that he could be living in any one of several other countries, including the United States, but he feels an obligation and commitment to his friends whom God has given to him to serve. He is there to genuinely serve these people, even at the expense of this level of sacrifice. He does this gladly and cheerfully. Their resettlement in Ukraine has not been easy. Employment opportunities are very limited and only by donations sent from the United States and other places, as well as the work brigades that they organize, have they been able to survive.
How many of us, who live in much more abundance, would choose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (Hebrews 11: 25-26)?