Ukraine: Mariupol Martyrs laid to rest

Five Ukrainian Christians who cared for 200 people living in a church basement until a grenade hit their car were remembered by Mariupol residents at a memorial service earlier this month. Four of the men were buried in a shared grave in the courtyard of a church near the burned remains of a house where several of the men had days prior been involved in rescuing a man trapped inside and then leading him to the Lord.

“These brothers in Christ were managing to gather food, medicine, and supplies for the 200 or so people who took shelter for several weeks in the basement of Central Baptist Church in Mariupol,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley. She says residents of the makeshift shelter included members of the church as well as church members’ relatives and neighbors, including some non-Christians.

“The five men not only cared for the shelter community but also responded to the needs of those they met as they were out gathering the supplies,” says Representative Foley. “For example, it was not strange for them to find some writing on a nearby fence which said, ‘Help us. There is a baby that needs food.’ These five men would spring into action and, by the grace of God, find and deliver baby formula even as the area faced constant bombardment.”

Of the five, two were from the Central Baptist Church in Mariupol: Deacon Nicolai Semeken (survived by his wife and three children) and Staneslav Burdun, who married six months ago. His body has not been found.

The remaining three were from Bethany Church in Mariupol: Sergei Savelev (survived by his wife and two children), his younger brother Roman Savelev (survived by his wife and two children), and the youngest team member, Staneslav Eleseev (survived by his wife).

On March 4, several of the men went out to the church parking lot to check on the cars at night. Neighbors told them that the owner of the home two doors down from the church was trapped in his basement. “Three of the brothers and one of the wives responded,” says Representative Foley. “The house had been shelled multiple times by the Russian Grad Multiple Launch Rocket System, so it was smoldering and finally burst into a full blaze. There were no firefighters and little water available, so they just improvised ways to fight off the fire while they worked to rescue the man.”

Actual footage of the three Ukrainian Christians rescuing a man from the basement of his home days before they themselves were killed by a direct hit from a grenade launcher.

“The men sawed through the floor to get to the basement, where the owner, whose name was Vova, was unable to move,” says Representative Foley. “He was buried up to his waist, with one leg pinned and one arm broken.”

Victoria Burdun, who had accompanied her new husband Stanislav to the home as part of the rescue team recalls her husband calling out to Vova as they dug him out, “You will live. Do you believe that God will save you?” The team carried Vova to the church using the door of his home as a stretcher.

“Vova had been buried from 5PM to 3AM, so he was frozen,” says Representative Foley. “The team had had to douse him with water several times to extinguish the flames from the fire that had reached him. They gave him tea, washed him, changed his clothes and took him to the hospital in the morning. Later, the brothers visited him again in the hospital. He was alive and he believed in God.”

Victoria Burdun believes God saved the man. “Three times it seemed that everything was in vain,” she says. “We prayed and God helped us put out this fire and save Vova’s life. There was no shelling during the fire and we thanked God that He gave us the time to save this person.”

Painting by Victoria Burdun of her husband and a Christian rescue team freeing a man from his burning home and then leading him to the Lord. Burdun’s husband is missing and presumed dead.

Burdun says the team had no fear during the rescue because weeks before they had already resolved to lay down their lives for the Lord. On February 28, she posted on her Facebook page, “We are not leaving anywhere and we are staying… My husband and I have no fear, and we are ready to die, if God wills!”

Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea recognizes the five men as martyrs.

“Martyrs are Christians who make a conscious decision to lay down their lives in service to the Lord,” says Representative Foley. “They commit to making a faithful witness unto death, testifying of the Lord’s grace to those for whom they lay down their lives.”

Representative Foley says that it is a mistake to think that martyrdom is the result of persecution. “We sometimes think that a person is a martyr because they are persecuted. But biblically, the word martyr means ‘witness’”, says Representative Foley. “Biblically, faithful witness—martyrdom—always comes first, and the result it produces is often persecution. Sometimes that persecution comes from other human beings. Sometimes it comes from the spiritual realm. In the case of these Christian brothers, it’s no coincidence that they who in Jesus’ name saved a man from two fires—the fire of his burning house and the fires of hell—were themselves burned alive a day later. There is always a high price to be paid for faithfulness to Christ.”

On March 9, the team of five left the church basement and drove off in a minivan in search of medicine and fuel but did not return. Later the burned frame of their vehicle was discovered, along with the bodies of four of the men. The car appeared to have been hit by a grenade launcher. “According to those who found 4 men, it was a direct hit,” says Representative Foley. “The bodies of the three men found in the back seat were burnt. The body of the deacon who had been driving was not burned but was found about 5 meters away from the van.” The fifth man, Staneslav Burdun, is still missing and presumed dead.

“They bore faithful witness to Christ unto death, and we will have one more brother in heaven because of their ministry,” says Representative Foley.

The grave in the courtyard of the Central Baptist Church in Mariupol where the four men are buried. 

Voice of the Martyrs Korea is supporting each of these five widows with an emergency gift from its Families of Martyrs fund. “The most basic and important ministry of Voice of the Martyrs is to care for the families of those who are martyred or imprisoned for their faith,” says Representative Foley. 

Representative Foley says that the organization is also continuing to administer its Ukraine Christian Emergency Relief project, in addition to making disbursements from its Families of Martyrs fund to the families of other Ukrainian Christians who are killed in the act of Christian witness. Those who are interested in making a donation to entire fund can do so at www.vomkorea.com/en/donation or via electronic transfer to:

국민은행 (KB Bank) 463501-01-243303

예금주 (Account Holder): (사)순교자의소리

Please include the word “Ukraine” or “Families of Martyrs” with the donation.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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