A Forsaken Orphan Finds a Loving Father
AS TOLD BY DIMITRIS SIDIROPOULOS
“Go ahead, pick up that weapon and shoot,” snarled the officer, thrusting a rifle in front of me. I calmly refused. To the horror of the onlooking soldiers, bullets from the officer’s gun began to whiz over my shoulder. Death seemed imminent. Happily, I survived. But this was not the first time my life was in danger.
MY FAMILY belonged to an ethnic minority living near Kayseri, in Cappadocia, Turkey. Some individuals from this area apparently embraced Christianity in the first century C.E. (Acts 2:9) By the beginning of the 20th century, however, things had changed drastically.
From Refugee to Orphan
A few months after I was born in 1922, ethnic conflict caused my family to flee to Greece as refugees. My panic-stricken parents left with nothing but their months-old baby, me. After suffering untold hardships, they arrived in a wretched condition in the village of Kiria, near Drama, in northern Greece.
When I was four years old and after my younger brother was born, my father died. He was only 27 years of age, but the misery of those harrowing times had worn him down. Mother suffered terrible deprivations, and soon she too died. My brother and I were left completely destitute. We were sent from orphanage to orphanage, and at the age of 12, I ended up in one in Thessalonica, where I served an apprenticeship as a mechanic.
As I was growing up inside the cold and inhospitable walls of orphanages, I wondered why certain people experience so much suffering and injustice. I asked myself why God allows such sad conditions to exist. In our religious education classes, we were taught that God is omnipotent, but no reasonable explanation was given about the existence and prevalence of evil. A popular mantra said that the Greek Orthodox Church is the best religion. When I asked, “If Orthodoxy is the best religion, why isn’t everybody Orthodox?” I received no satisfactory answer.
Our teacher, nevertheless, had deep respect for the Bible, and he impressed on us that it is a sacred book. The director of the orphanage displayed the same attitude, but he inexplicably refrained from participating in religious services. When I inquired about this, I was told that he had once studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion unknown to me.
When my education at the Thessalonica orphanage was completed, I was 17 years old. World War II had begun, and Greece was under Nazi occupation. People were dying in the streets from hunger. In order to survive, I fled to the countryside to work for meager wages as a field hand.
The Bible Provides Answers
When I returned to Thessalonica in April 1945, I received a visit from the sister of one of my childhood friends with whom I had lived in a number of orphanages. Paschalia told me that her brother had disappeared and asked me if I knew anything of his whereabouts. During the conversation, she said that she was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and mentioned God’s interest in humans.
Bitterly, I raised many objections. Why had I been suffering since early childhood? Why had I been left an orphan? Where is God when we need him the most? She replied, “Are you sure that God is to blame for these conditions?” Using her Bible, she showed me that God does not make people suffer. I was helped to see that the Creator loves humans and will shortly improve things. Using such scriptures as Isaiah 35:5-7 and Revelation 21:3, 4, she showed me that soon war, strife, sickness, and death will be removed, and faithful people will live forever on earth.
Finding a Supportive Family
I learned that Paschalia’s brother had been killed in a skirmish of the guerrilla forces. I visited her family to comfort them, but instead they provided Scriptural comfort to me. I went back for more consoling thoughts from the Bible, and soon I became part of a small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who met secretly to study and worship. Despite the ostracism brought upon the Witnesses, I was determined to continue associating with them.
In that group of humble Christians, I found the warm, loving family atmosphere that I missed. They provided the spiritual support and assistance that I desperately needed. In them, I found selfless and concerned friends, who were ready and willing to help and comfort me. (2 Corinthians 7:5-7) More important, I was helped to draw closer to Jehovah, whom I now thought of as my loving heavenly Father. His qualities of love, compassion, and deep concern were very appealing. (Psalm 23:1-6) At last I had found a spiritual family and a loving Father! My heart was touched. Soon I was moved to dedicate myself to Jehovah, and I was baptized in September 1945.
Attending Christian meetings not only increased my knowledge but also deepened my faith. Since there was no other means of transportation, a number of us often walked the three miles between our village and the meeting place, engaging in unforgettable spiritual discussions. In late 1945, when I learned of the opportunity to participate in the full-time evangelizing work, I started pioneering. A strong relationship with Jehovah was vital, as my faith and integrity would soon be tested to the limit.
The police often raided our meeting place at gunpoint. The country was under martial law, since civil war was raging in Greece. Opposing groups turned on one another with savage hatred. Taking advantage of the situation, the clergy led the authorities to believe that we were Communists and to persecute us viciously.
During a two-year period, we were arrested numerous times, and six times we received sentences of up to four months. However, the prisons were already full of political prisoners, so we were set free. We used our unexpected freedom to continue preaching, but after a while we were again arrested—three times in the same week. We knew that many of our brothers had been exiled to barren islands. Would my faith be strong enough for me to face such a test?
Conditions became extremely difficult when I was put on police probation. In order to keep an eye on me, the authorities sent me to Evosmos, near Thessalonica, where there was a police station. I rented a room nearby, and to support myself, I started working as an itinerant craftsman, polishing copper pots and pans. While I pioneered in the surrounding villages, this trade enabled me to get easy access to homes without arousing the suspicion of the police. As a result, several people heard the good news and responded favorably. More than ten of them eventually became dedicated worshipers of Jehovah.
Ten Years, Eight Prisons
I remained under police surveillance until the end of 1949, and then I returned to Thessalonica, eager to continue in the full-time ministry. Just when I thought that my travails were over, in 1950, I was unexpectedly ordered to join the army. Because of my Christian neutrality, I was determined not to “learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4) Thus started a long, tormenting journey that would take me to some of the most infamous prisons in Greece.
It all started in the city of Drama. During the first weeks of my incarceration there, the newly conscripted soldiers began their target practice. One day, I was taken to the shooting range. One of the officers thrust a rifle in front of me and ordered me to shoot. When I refused, he started shooting at me. When other officers saw that I would not compromise, they began to punch me savagely. They lit cigarettes and stubbed them out in the palms of my hands. Afterward, they threw me into solitary confinement. This went on for three days. The pain from the cigarette burns was excruciating, and for many years I bore the scars on my hands.
Before I was court-martialed, I was transferred to a military camp at Iráklion, Crete. There, in an effort to break my integrity, they beat me severely. Afraid that I might give in, I prayed fervently, asking my heavenly Father to strengthen me. The words of Jeremiah 1:19 came to mind: “They will be certain to fight against you, but they will not prevail against you, for ‘I am with you,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘to deliver you.’” The soothing “peace of God” brought calmness and tranquillity. I understood the wisdom of putting implicit trust in Jehovah.—Philippians 4:6, 7; Proverbs 3:5.
At the trial that followed, I was sentenced to life imprisonment. Jehovah’s Witnesses were considered the worst “enemies of the State.” The life term began at the Itsedin criminal prison, outside Canea, where I was put in solitary confinement. Itsedin was an old fort, and my cell was full of rats. I used to wrap a ragged, old blanket around me from head to toe so that the rats would not have direct contact with my body when they crawled all over me. I fell very sick with pneumonia. The doctor said that I had to sit in the sunshine, and thus I was able to have discussions with many of the prisoners in the courtyard. However, my condition worsened, and after a massive pulmonary hemorrhage, I was transferred to the Iráklion hospital.
Again, my spiritual family of fellow Christians were there when I needed them. (Colossians 4:11) The brothers in Iráklion visited me regularly, providing comfort and encouragement. I told them that I needed literature in order to witness to interested ones. They brought me a suitcase with a double bottom in which I could safely hide the literature. How happy I was that during my stay in those prisons, at least six fellow inmates were helped to become true Christians!
In the meantime the civil war had ended, and my sentence was commuted to ten years in prison. I served the remainder of my sentence in prisons in Rethimno, Genti Koule, and Cassandra. After spending almost ten years in eight prisons, I was discharged, and I returned to Thessalonica, where I was warmly received into the arms of my beloved Christian brothers.
Thriving in the Christian Brotherhood
By now the Witnesses in Greece could worship in relative freedom. I immediately seized the opportunity to continue in the full-time ministry. Soon another blessing was added, as I got to know a faithful Christian sister, Katina, who loved Jehovah and was very active in the preaching work. We were married in October 1959. The birth of our daughter, Agape, and having my own Christian family further healed the wounds of my orphanhood. Above all, our family was content to serve under the protective care of our loving heavenly Father, Jehovah.—Psalm 5:11.
Because of circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to stop pioneering, but I supported my wife as she continued in the full-time service. A real milestone in my Christian life came in 1969 when an international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses was held in Nuremberg, Germany. As I prepared to travel there, I applied for a passport. When my wife went to the police station to ask why more than two months had passed without my getting the passport, an officer pulled a thick file out of his drawer and said: “Are you asking for a passport for this person so that he can proselytize people in Germany? No way! He is dangerous.”
With Jehovah’s help and the assistance of some brothers, I was included in a group passport and was thus able to attend that wonderful convention. The attendance reached a peak of over 150,000, and I could clearly see Jehovah’s spirit directing and unifying this international spiritual family. Later in life, I would appreciate even more the value of the Christian brotherhood.
In 1977 my beloved wife and faithful companion passed away. I tried my best to raise my daughter according to Bible principles, but I was not left alone. Again, my spiritual family came to the rescue. I will always be grateful for the support of the brothers during that difficult time. Some of them even moved into our home for a while to look after my daughter. I will never forget their self-sacrificing love.—John 13:34, 35.
Agape grew up and married a brother, Elias. They have four sons, all in the truth. In recent years, I have had a number of strokes and my health has deteriorated. My daughter and her family take good care of me. Despite poor health, I still have many reasons to rejoice. I remember the time when there were only about one hundred brothers in all of Thessalonica, meeting secretly in private homes. Now there are about five thousand zealous Witnesses in that area. (Isaiah 60:22) At conventions, young brothers approach me, asking: “Do you remember when you used to bring the magazines to our home?” Although the parents might not have been reading those magazines, their children did, and they progressed spiritually!
As I observe the growth of Jehovah’s organization, I feel that it was worth all the trials I endured. I always tell my grandchildren and other young ones to remember their heavenly Father in their youth, and he will never abandon them. (Ecclesiastes 12:1) Jehovah proved true to his word, becoming for me “a father of fatherless boys.” (Psalm 68:5) Although I was a forsaken orphan early in life, eventually I found a caring Father!
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I worked as a cook in the Drama prison
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With Katina on our wedding day, 1959
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An assembly in a forest near Thessalonica, late 1960’s
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With our daughter, 1967