Bozhidor Igoff’s life has been shaped by three words:
“God bless Bulgaria.”
These were the words Igoff’s father spoke as he faced a communist firing squad in the spring of 1954. They were supposed to be his last.
In reality, the officer in charge of the prison where Igoff’s father was held for six years had received orders to release the elder Igoff and was trying to force a last-minute confession from him by threatening to have him shot.
“My father was a strong man; a patriot. I am very proud of him,” Igoff said Sunday, before he spoke to his American sister church, Broadmoor Baptist Church.
Igoff was in Baton Rouge last week, visiting friends and inquiring about getting medical equipment for hospitals in his country.
Following World War II, Russia subjugated most of Eastern Europe, and while religions were seldom officially outlawed, they were suppressed and atheism encouraged. Igoff’s father had been accused of being a spy for the West; but his real crime, his son said, was that he was a Christian minister.
“In the days before the communist revolution, we we’re allowed to worship as we wanted,” Igoff said. “Then, after communism, we all became like criminals, and the persecution started.”
Today, the 62-year-old Igoff is a Baptist minister and popular activist in Bulgaria. It is his communist tormentors who have faded into obscurity, he said.
Igoff endured years of hatred growing up as the son of an accused spy. Along with his mother and younger brother, Igoff was interned in a work camp in northern Bulgaria while his father was in prison. In school, he was ridiculed and beaten by students and teachers alike. Still, he graduated with honors, but was prevented from attending a university and, instead, was assigned a job shoveling dirt in a foundry.
“It was very cruel. Without our faith, we were lost,” he said.
Instead of accepting the dictates of the communist government, Igoff said he found inspiration in his father’s refusal to denounce his religion.
When he was old enough, Igoff began fighting his own war against religious oppression in Bulgaria by smuggling Bibles and translating religious books and articles for distribution among the congregations that still met in secret.
It was illegal to possess even a page from a religious text, and someone caught with an entire Bible faced up to 15 years in prison, Igoff said.
To hear Igoff describe the typical smuggling operation is like listening to a spy novel read aloud.
“Someone would knock on my door in the night, and I would follow them outside town. We would stop along the road, and I would pretend to be helping the driver with car trouble, while some people would move the Bibles from their car to mine. Then I would take the Bibles to our hiding place,” Igoff said.
Despite the danger —he often had to pass through checkpoints with a car full of religious books — Igoff laughs about it today.
“My car was a tiny Russian Ladu. It was very small. I once left my wife waiting in the woods, because I had so many Bibles there was no room for her,” he said.
The risks Igoff took proved their worth in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the communist suppression of religion ended.
“One day we were hiding and persecuted,” he said. “The next day we were preaching in the streets.”
In 1994, Igoff came to the United States to see his daughter graduate from the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D. During the ceremony, he was given an honorary doctoral degree. Since then, he has been working to improve the lives of people suffering under extreme poverty in Bulgaria. He has established relationships with both Broadmoor Baptist and University Baptist churches, which provide financial help to his own church, First Baptist Church of Varna, Bulgaria.