If Virginia Prodan’s memoir is anything to go by, living in Romania under the petulant and paranoid rule of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1965–1989) was more than difficult. Schools and workplaces were strictly controlled and a chance word of complaint at the shops could be reported and lead to the Securitate knocking on your door. There was torture, brutal imprisonment, summary executions.
Into this milieu steps Virginia Prodan, a young lawyer obsessed with finding truth. Given her emotionally abusive childhood and the secrets her family kept from her about her origins, her dogged determination to uncover facts and achieve justice is not surprising. Although the courts system is thoroughly infected by Ceausescu’s agenda, Prodan—ignoring threats and refusing bribes—manages to succeed in defending persecuted individuals. After becoming a Christian, she is emboldened further and finds herself increasingly called on to defend believers against an officially atheist state.
“I should be dead,” says Prodan, “buried in an unmarked grave in Romania. Obviously, I am not. God had other plans.”
Prodan finds herself the target of increasingly violent intimidation, climaxing in a contract killer’s gun held to her head. Described in montage it sounds terribly sensationalist—secret packages and documents, black sedans and the CIA. But this book is not a work of fiction; rather it is a lawyerly recounting of the facts, personal and professional.
Real life often fails to conform to our expectations of a good story and in this book there is ample evidence of inconvenient reality—family schisms that are never repaired, basic facts that are never ascertained, characters who fade into the background without ever completing their narrative arc. Firmer editorial guidance could have smoothed some of these rough edges but their presence reminds us that heroes are ordinary people too.
Virginia Prodan’s memoir is a worthy addition to what has become a genre in Christian publishing—first-person accounts of believers impacted by authoritarian regimes. Fellow Romanian Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ (1967) is a classic, as are “Brother Andrew’s” God’s Smuggler (1967) and “Brother Yun’s” The Heavenly Man (2002), the latter of which reads like the biblical book of Acts set in 1980s Communist China. A new crop of titles has emerged in recent years profiling Christians threatened by hard-line Islamic regimes—Captive in Iran (2013) by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh come readily to mind.
The decisions made by these protagonists will often puzzle and confront the average Western reader: Can religion really be so important to people that they will endure torture or even death rather than simply renouncing their beliefs? How can someone experiencing abuses of the worst kind pray for their abusers? And what credence can we give to accounts of unlikely coincidences and apparent miracles claimed by people who otherwise appear quite rational and genuine?
Reading these memoirs it seems that the more desperate the situation, the more likely God is to step in. It’s a challenge for both the empiricist and the believer.
A further challenge comes in recognising that accounts such as Prodan’s are just the tip of an iceberg; advocacy group Open Doors estimates that 100 million Christians are currently suffering for their faith around the world, facing community hostility, government restrictions or both. And while Christians are the most persecuted believer group in the world, other religionists are also targeted. The Pew Research Center reports that more than 75 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where severe religious restrictions apply.
But what of Virginia Prodan? After emigrating to the United States with her family, she returned to her profession, for some years specialising in migration law. But she has also kept her passion for human rights and religious freedom alive. And her fight for the oppressed continues.
Saving my Assassin, a memoir, published by Tyndale, 2016.