In Sofia, Bulgaria, Jivko and Julie Binev are full-time missionaries working with Greater Europe Mission. Julie is a Wisconsin native, but Jivko was born and raised in the outskirts of Sofia. His life of ministry carries on the legacy of his parents, Dinko and Mara Binev, who have instilled him with Christian values from the time he was young. Their story, however, begins far before Jivko ever began his ministry or even had a relationship with Jesus Christ. This legacy of faith has been burning in their hearts since a young age, when Bulgaria was under communist rule and protestant Christians were guaranteed discrimination and persecution from the government.
Mara Georgyva Bineva grew up in Grudavo, a smaller town on the east coast of Bulgaria. In her town, there was no church (the nearest one being 30 kilometers away) and there was only one Christian family that she knew of. However, she had Christian relatives that she would frequently visit. They prayed that Mara would come to have a relationship with Jesus and put her faith in him. When Mara was 20, those prayers were answered.
After finishing school in her hometown, Mara went to Stara Zagora for 6 months for typing school. Her landlords were Christians and would regularly bring her to church. As she lived with them and continued to go to church, her desire to know God grew, eventually bringing her to a full faith in Christ.
As Mara began following Jesus, she became aware of her desire to have a Christian husband alongside her to help her grow and develop in her faith. Unfortunately, a future husband was already picked out for her by her parents. She began praying that the Lord would bring someone into her life who could rescue her from this situation. Two or three months later, Dinko showed up.
Dinko Zhelev Binev grew up in a Christian family. His mother attended an evangelical Christian church in the village Kuzare and brought Dinko along throughout his childhood. As he grew older, he started bucking against the Christian life and wanted things to be different. He chose worldly friends, stopped going to church, and was generally apathetic toward religion. His mother urged him to take his faith seriously, but it had little effect on him. She prayed for him fervently, asking the Lord to reach his heart.
After Dinko finished his mandated military service, he wanted to leave his hometown. He made the decision inside of himself to go to Sofia and promised God, “If you open the door for me to go to Sofia, then I’ll commit my life to serving you.” The door was opened and Dinko happily left for Sofia. His promise was soon forgotten, but the Lord had other plans in store for him.
Dinko’s brother, Ivan, lived in Sofia and would bring Dinko to church with him often. He invited Dinko to join the choir with him, and they started serving the Lord together. In one moment, Dinko’s life was radically changed. He was kneeling down and praying fervently when, all of a sudden, he “understood.” His general belief in some vague God became a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
After some time of following the Lord, Dinko decided he was ready to find a wife. The pastor in Burgas had been keeping an eye on him for the sake of his mother, so Dinko reached out and asked about the prospect of finding a Christian girl from their church to marry. They said they would pray about it for him and he settled in to wait. One or two weeks later, Mara showed up.
Dinko and Mara met early in 1973 at the church in Burgas. Mara’s wedding to the man her parents wanted her to marry was mere weeks away, but she knew that wasn’t who God had called her to marry. She and Dinko prayed, talked with family members and friends, and ultimately came to the decision that God was leading them to marry each other.
When Mara’s mother found out, she refused to accept or approve the match. She locked Mara in her room and wouldn’t let her leave. Mara snuck out and, with the help of some church friends, made it all the way to Sofia to meet up with Dinko. They had the marriage ceremony there at the church Dinko was attending and were welcomed with great love by the church family.
Dinko and Mara’s story is one of love and God’s provision, but it is only one part of the story of their lives and experiences. Living during the time of Bulgaria’s communist rule, the two faced many challenges as Christians. During communism, from September 1944 to November 1989, protestant Christians in Bulgaria faced much persecution and discrimination.
Orthodox Christianity, the predominant religion in Bulgaria, was also regulated but not to the same extent because they had been infiltrated by the communists.
For protestants, the practice of their religion was heavily regulated—they were not allowed to meet for church or have any Christian literature. Pastors were ordered to tell their congregations not to meet and believers had to find different low-profile ways to get together. They would gather in small groups under the guise of celebrating “Name Days” (similar to birthdays) or meeting discreetly in public parks.
Getting their hands on Christian literature during this time was a challenge, though not impossible. Believers caught distributing Christian literature or gathering for church would be accused of being American spies. If they were put on trial, they could be imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. Bibles and hymnals were smuggled in from other countries (primarily the USA) and disguised as ambiguous, untitled books. Mara, being a typist, was able to copy testimonies and other Christian stories to pass around among the believers.
In 1971, before the two met, Dinko was living with some other believers in Sofia, still growing in his faith. One day, the police showed up at the apartment, asking to look around inside. They saw a Christian magazine out on the table and arrested Dinko. He later found out that his contact for getting those magazines was actually a spy for the communists and had turned them in.
Dinko was put on trial and interrogated by the police for hours. They questioned him about how he got the magazines and other literature they had found in the apartment, whether he was illegally meeting with other Christians for church, and more. Dinko was honest with them and boldly clung to his beliefs. The main interrogator, affronted by Dinko’s faith, threatened that he had the power to throw Dinko in jail. Dinko responded confidently, “If God allows it, that will happen.” The prosecutor had no response.
It was at this point that the informant who had betrayed Dinko took him outside. He tried to convince Dinko to just side with the communists and forego the danger of what he was saying, but Dinko could not be moved. He clung to the opportunity to be a witness for Jesus to the people who so clearly needed Him. Dinko was soon thereafter released without punishment and returned to his life with even greater trust in the Lord.
The communist government fell in November of 1989, transitioning to the democracy that remains in Bulgaria today. Christians were quick to resume openly practicing their faith without the persecution of the government; however, even before the transition of governments, revival was sparking across Bulgaria. In April of ’89, an evangelist from Denmark named Johnny Noer held a public service at a church in Varna. The police tried to shut it down, but they couldn’t stop the 1,000-3,000 people who showed up to see the Lord move.
In the years since communism was deconstructed in Bulgaria, Mara and Dinko have raised children and met their grandchildren, have served in church and shared the good news with their friends and neighbors. They’ve lived in Lyulin, on the outskirts of the Sofia city limit, since they got married and have seen the neighborhood grow and change along with the country. Next year they will celebrate their 50th anniversary, Lord willing, and are thankful that the Lord has preserved them thus far.
Throughout the years Dinko and Mara have been blessed to see Bulgarian Christians transition from the shadows to the light of day. From those experiences, they’ve learned some important truths that have been foundational to how they live their lives for the Lord. They’ve seen the different ways the church has operated in Bulgaria under the threat of persecution and under the comfort of protection. In the times of communism, the believers had to be unified among themselves to have the strength to withstand the oppression of the government. Division among the church was intolerable in a place where faith had to be real and grounded to survive. Nowadays, they’ve noticed more division among the denominations as churches compete for members in a place where Orthodox tradition continues to reign as the dominant religion.
For Mara and Dinko, the idea that has carried them in their faith through the decades can be summed up in this—to stand firm in the Lord. Psalm 91 begins, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’”
From the Lord paving the way for them to get married, to Dinko being arrested and released, to the countless other challenges their lives have bought them, the Lord has remained constant. Believers of every nation and denomination can be united in this, that the Lord will be faithful to provide for those who follow Him.
Emma Campbell is a Ten2 Project 2022 storyteller with Greater Europe Mission and serves in Sofia, Bulgaria.