Tajikistan_Bakhrom Kholmatov with family after release from prison 18.12.19

A Protestant pastor sentenced to three years in prison for “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting religious hatred” has been freed three months early (he was due to be freed in March 2020).

Bakhrom Kholmatov, 42, was sentenced in July 2017 and has served his term in a prison in Yavan, 360km from the northern Tajik city of Khujand, where his family live.

Kholmatov, who was the pastor of the Sunmin Sunbogym (Full Gospel), or Good News of Grace, Protestant Church was arrested by the National Security Committee (NSC, known also as the secret police), who brought his case to trial.

Members of the church claimed they were harassed and tortured by secret police after the arrest of their pastor.

Kholmatov, who – with wife Gulya – has three children, was arrested on unspecified charges during an April 2017 raid on his church. Affiliated churches in the Sogd region were also raided and closed down earlier that year.

Freed at 10am today, Kholmatov said “I’d like to express my huge gratitude to all the people who supported and prayed for me, my family and my church. All these three years I felt your prayers, they helped me to stand, they helped my precious wife and children, they helped the members of my church who were left without a pastor, then kicked by the authorities out of our building. Your prayers helped us to stand strong through all these difficulties, to grow spiritually and to transform into the nature of our Heavenly Lord! Thank you from all my heart! Glory to God!”

Forum 18 reported that the Tajik authorities threatened family, friends and other church members if they reveal any details of the case, trial or jailing. But it says Kholmatov was sentenced under Criminal Code Article 189 (“Inciting national, racial, local or religious hatred or dissension, humiliation of national dignity, as well as propaganda of the superiority of citizens based on their religion, national, racial, or local origin, if committed in public or using the mass media”).

The extremist charges were brought against Kholmatov after NSC claimed songs based on Bible passages, such as “Our fight is not against flesh and blood”and God’s army is marching, are extremist and call on people to overthrow the government.

A book seized from the church – ‘More than a carpenter’ by American Protestant author Josh McDowell – was also claimed to be extremist, as judged by religious experts working for the NSC, said Forum 18.

Khujand City Administration’s chief religious affairs official, Mukhsin Mirkamolov, said that the court that tried Kholmatov “was not prejudiced against him as a Christian… All religions are equal and free in Tajikistan. He violated the law and was therefore tried”.