A pastor in Tajikistan has been released from prison over two-and-a-half years after authorities raided his church, according to advocacy organizations.
Tajik Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov of the Good News of Grace Protestant Church in Khujand was sentenced in July 2017 and accused of “singing extremist songs” in church and “inciting religious hatred.”
Police raided Kholmatov’s church and harassed the congregation in April 2017.
The Ireland-based persecution advocacy group Church in Chains reports that in the wake of the raid, several church members lost their jobs or faced repercussions.
The organization reports that the 43-year-old pastor was arrested and later charged for possessing a book of worship songs and Josh McDowell’s book More Than a Carpenter.
Kholmatov, who has a wife and three children, was released about three months before his sentence was set to expire.
“I’d like to express my huge gratitude to all the people who supported and prayed for me, my family and my church,” Kholmatov said in a statement shared by Church in Chains. “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.”
According to Church in Chains, Kholmatov served most of his sentence in Yavan Prison, over 200 miles away from his home.
Tajikistan has for years been listed by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” that has engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.” Tajikistan’s CPC designation was renewed by the State Department on Friday.
Tajikistan ranks as the 29th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List. The ranking reflects the fact that the country’s central government has imposed restrictive measures and the fact that local authorities monitor religious meetings, raid churches and arrest believers.
There are an estimated 61,000 Christians in a predominantly Muslim country comprised of over 9 million people, notes Open Doors.
According to an Open Doors’ dossier on the situation in Tajikistan, the government began introducing “far-reaching restrictions on the freedom of religion” in 2011. In August 2011, a law was passed preventing those under the age of 18 from participating in religious activities.
In January 2016, the Tajikistan constitution was amended so that President Emomali Rahmon could establish a “presidential dynasty.”
In Tajikistan, no religious activities beyond state-run institutions are allowed, according to Open Doors. This has led to the raids on church meetings.
“It is very common that members of any Protestant church are regarded as followers of an alien sect intending to undermine the current political system,” the dossier reads.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the state of religious freedom in Tajikistan in its 2019 annual report, saying that the government has cracked down on various faiths including Muslims, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i, and others.
Additionally, USCIRF warned that Tajikistan has cracked down on things like wedding receptions, funeral banquets and even banned beards and hijabs.
“Although there were fewer arrests and less harassment of Christians in 2018 when compared to the previous year, it is not clear that this represented a policy shift,” the 2019 USCIRF report reads. “As is the case with several other Central Asian governments, the Tajikistani government is deeply suspicious of Christian minority groups, especially those engaged in proselytism.”
The Oslo-based Forum 18 News Service reported that a court in October rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witness prisoner of conscience Shamil Khakimov, who was sentenced to over 7 years for the alleged crime of “inciting religious hatred.”
Among objections authorities had with Kjajimov was his possession of a Tajik translation of the Bible. In prison, authorities are reportedly denying Khakimov’s access to a Bible.