Bahrom Kholmatov
Bakhrom Kholmatov during his trial for ‘singing extremist songs in church and so inciting religious hatred’.

A Protestant church leader in Tajikistan has been handed a three-year sentence for “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting religious hatred,” reports regional news agency Forum 18.

The agency reports that the Tajik authorities have also threatened family, friends and other church members if they reveal any details of the case, trial or jailing. But it says Bakhrom Kholmatov, 42, 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”).

Kholmatov, who is married with three children, was arrested on unspecified charges during a 10 April raid on the Good News of Grace Protestant Church, in the northern city of Khujand, by the National Security Committee (NSC, known also as the secret police), who brought the case to trial.

According to Forum 18, the NSC, alongside other law enforcement agencies and the State Committee for Religious Affairs, also raided affiliated churches in northern Tajikistan’s Sogd region in February, and, in March, officials closed down a church in Konibodom – 50 miles east of Khujand – after interrogating and torturing church members. NSC officers also pressured employers into dismissing members of Konibodom’s congregation from their jobs.

Members of the Church network had built a modern hospital in the city of Buston (formerly Chkalovsk) in the Sogd region, operated gyms teaching taekwondo and ran a secondary school.

There were rumours in the past that some officials desired to expropriate enterprises linked to the Church.

The extremist charges were brought against Kholmatov after the February raids, when the 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 – is 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”.

A member of one of the churches said: “Church meetings continue, but how can things be normal after all that has happened?”