Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov, who was detained by police in April, was sentenced in July to three years in prison. The 42-year-old pastor also known as Bakhrom Holmatov, was arrested on April 10 after KNB officers raided the Sonmin Sonbogym [Good News of Grace] Protestant Church, harassing and beating church members in addition to arresting the pastor. During the raid, the officers confiscated items from the church, including the pastor’s computer and the book “More Than a Carpenter” by Josh McDowell.
Bakhrom’s arrest was only the latest event in harassment that has been ongoing since February. A church that he pastored in Sughd was raided in early February. Officers of the State Committee for Religious Affairs along with other law enforcement agencies interrupted the church, beat church members, insulted and swore at them. They demanded that the believers renounce their faith.
Afterward, some church members were fired from their jobs, and the secret police pressured church leaders and others so much that the church was closed in March. At that time Pastor Bakhrom moved his wife and three children to Khujand and began leading the church there. But the family was only there before the pastor was arrested in the April 10 raid.
During the interrogations afterward, Christians were informed that "the purpose of conducting inspections is the closure of churches in Tajikistan and the confiscation of their property."
Later, officials claimed that Christian songs found on Pastor Bakhrom’s computer and the “More Than a Carpenter” book are "extremist materials,” and they were holding Pastor Bakhrom on suspicion of extremism. The authorities allege the songs "Praise God, O Unbelieving Country," "Army of Christ" and "Our Battle is Not Against Blood and Flesh" are recognized by religious "experts" as "extremist and calling people to overthrow the government." The "experts" who came to this conclusion are the imams working for the KNB (which was formerly the KGB under the USSR).
In July, a court sentenced Pastor Bakhrom to three years in prison.
As in other countries in the region, Tajik authorities often use accusations of extremism to punish Christians. Local Christians later said the charges were fabricated because authorities could not find anything illegal in the church. People who are close to Pastor Holmatov believe he was actually arrested because of a conflict over a building. The Sonmin Sonbogym church owns a prestigious building that authorities apparently want. Several months before the raids, Pastor Holmatov was called to a meeting where he was required to sign documents transferring the building to someone else. The pastor refused.
Tajik authorities say the Sonmin Sonbogym has no official registration, and therefore their activities are illegal. However, Sonmin Sonbogym was officially registered with the State Committee for Religious Affairs in 1993. And in 2009, when all registered religious communities had to undergo re-registration, the church immediately complied with the requirement and received a new registration on Oct. 23 of the same year.
Officials involved in this case threatened members of Pastor Bakhrom’s family, as well as members of the church telling them to remain silent about the details of the case, the court or the prisoner's condition. Pastor Bakhrom's relatives have dutifully refused to talk about the subject.
Pastor Bakhrom’s family and church members do not know where he is being held.