TAJIKISTAN: Protestant Pastor jailed for three years

Pastor Bakhrom's family.

Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov of Khujand's [Khojand's] Sunmin Sunbogym (Full Gospel) Protestant Church has been jailed for three years, Protestants who wish to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 on 14 July. Prisoner of conscience Kholmatov was jailed in early July by Khujand City Court in Tajikistan's Sogd Region.

The 42-year-old prisoner of conscience Kholmatov, who is married with three children, was first held in NSC secret police custody after his 10 April arrest (see F18News 28 April 2017 While on trial he was held in a police detention centre, and he has now been moved to an unknown prison.

The authorities have threatened family members, friends, and church members with reprisals if they reveal any details of the case, trial, or jailing to anyone. "We are afraid of more arrests or other punishments", Protestants told Forum 18.

The National Security Committee (NSC) secret police, together with the State Committee for Religious Affairs (SCRA) and other law-enforcement agencies, raided Sunmin Sunbogym's affiliated congregations in Sogd Region in early February. Officials closed down the congregation in the town of Konibodom in March after interrogating and torturing church members, and NSC secret police officers pressured employers into firing church members from their jobs. The NSC arrested Pastor Kholmatov on 10 April after they raided his Church also, and harassed and physically tortured with beatings its members (see F18News 28 April 2017

No arrests or trials have taken place of officials who tortured people, contrary to Tajikistan's binding international human rights law obligations under the United Nations (UN) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (see Forum 18's Tajikistan religious freedom survey 

Protestants in Tajikistan state that they do not know the exact details of the jailing of prisoner of conscience Kholmatov, but do know that he was jailed for allegedly "singing extremist songs in church and so inciting 'religious hatred'". The charges were brought after the February raid, when the NSC secret police claimed that songs based on Biblical passages, such as "Praise God, oh the godless country", "God's army is marching", and "Our fight is not against flesh and blood" are "extremist and call on people to overthrow the government". The NSC also claimed that a book, "More Than a Carpenter" by American Protestant author Josh McDowell, is also "extremist". The "experts" who concluded this are imams working for the NSC (see F18News 28 April 2017

Prisoner of conscience Kholmatov was jailed under Criminal Code Article 189, Part 1 ("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").


Таджикистан: Пастор Бахром Холматов осужден на 3 года за пение христианских гимнов

Пастор церкви Полного Евангелия (Sunmin Sunbogym) Бахром Холматов из Таджикского города Хужанд осужден на 3 года за то что “пел экстремистские песни в церкви и таким образом разжигал религиозную ненависть”. 

Пастору Бахрому 42 года, он женат и имеет троих детей. До суда его содержали в спец тюрьме КГБ (сейчас КНБ), после того как его арестовали 10 апреля 2017 года. После вынесения приговора его увезли в неизвестном направлении. 

Чиновники причастные к этому делу запугивали членов семьи пастора Бахрома, а так же членов церкви, заставляя их молчать о деталях преследований и уголовного дела. 

За день ареста пастора Бахрома, местным КНБ был организован рейд на церковь Sunmin Sunbogym. Несколько членов церкви было избито во время этого рейда.



Kazakhstan: An Absurd Travesty of Injustice in Yklas Kabduakasov’s case

Verdict, p. 10
*This phrase translates as follows: "We cannot be traitors to Islam in any way."
Yklas was eventually sentenced to two years in a prison camp for uttering this phrase during a Sunday sermon for Evangelical Christian Baptists. I find it difficult to call this anything less than an absurd travesty of injustice.

In the fight against religious extremism and hatred, the state should always respect the freedom of religion and belief, which is an inalienable, boundless, and universal right. According to Paragraph 2, Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the human rights that cannot be altered or suspended, even in a state of emergency, are the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, which are on par with the right to life.

Unfortunately, in modern-day Kazakhstan, we are seeing many disturbing trends in religious policy. As an illustration, I would like to present the case of Yklas Kabduakasov, the first Christian in Kazakhstan to be convicted and sentenced to a real prison term for his faith. (It should be noted that he is not the first Christian in the nation to be convicted for his faith. There have been many others, such as Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev, who was arrested under fabricated charges in May 2013, but his prison sentence was eventually suspended.)

In August 2015, Yklas Kabduakasov, who converted from Islam to Christianity, was arrested and subsequently charged under Article 174 of the Criminal Code. In the indictment, he was accused of misinterpreting the Sacred Books, the Koran and the Bible, and spreading religious discord among indigenous Muslim people. Yklas’s arrest is particularly disturbing, because Kazakhstan’s constitution guarantees the freedom of belief.

It appears that this nation is breaking its own religion laws, which brings up several questions. On what basis could investigators and experts in Kazakhstan, a secular country, expect to correctly evaluate Yklas’ religious convictions and actions? Why did Kazakh police officers ask him provocative questions about his faith when they already knew about his Christian convictions? Why did experts without any philological, theological, or religious education conduct a philological analysis of faith and religion? In addition to these disconcerting facts, after the first day of Yklas’ trial, the media publicized a report based on false information, in which they accused him of calling for war against Islam. Many subsequent articles containing false information about the trial were also published.

Below is an excerpt from the trial’s verdict, where you can clearly see the absurdity of Yklas’ sentence.

The Court has reliably determined that the convicted defendant, before the meeting with the witnesses, was actively engaged in propagandistic activities in a community of indigenous natives aimed at disseminating the teachings of the Christian religion, and the establishment of its superiority and the inferiority of the Islamic religion.

In this regard, the Court rightly took as the basis for the sentence the above testimony of witnesses who unswervingly and consistently over the pre-trial investigation and the court hearing insisted that Kabduakasov publicly distributed religious ideology aimed at inciting religious hatred.

Their statements are consistent with the case materials produced in the trial.

Thus, from the videos viewed in the courts of first and appellate instances, it follows that in Kabduakasov's statements, we can trace elements of a negative attitude towards Islam, and the superiority of the Christian religion.

For example, in an episode dated 10/04/2014, despite the fact that Kabduakasov was in the audience while Deacon K. Dyakonov was conducting divine service among the parishioners, Kabduakasov expresses his opinion about Islam in the following phrase: "Бiз саткын Ислам бела алмаймыз никак”*, which testifies to his negative attitude towards Islam and his imposition of his beliefs on the indigenous.

Verdict, p. 10

*This phrase translates as follows: "We cannot be traitors to Islam in any way."

Yklas was eventually sentenced to two years in a prison camp for uttering this phrase during a Sunday sermon for Evangelical Christian Baptists. I find it difficult to call this anything less than an absurd travesty of injustice.

The case against Yklas Kabduakasov shows that Christians in Kazakhstan are in no better position than during the Soviet era, when Christians were imprisoned for their faith, as this is still happening today.


KAZAKHSTAN: Two years' imprisonment for Astana Christian

Seventh-day Adventist prisoner of conscience Yklas Kabduakasov was arrested by officers of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) secret police in the courtroom on 28 December as the Prosecutor succeeded in having his punishment of seven years' restricted freedom changed into a prison term. The City Court in the capital Astana increased the sentence to two years' imprisonment in a general regime labour camp, those attending the appeal hearing told Forum 18 News Service. The 12 weeks Kabduakasov spent in pre-trial detention will count towards his two year prison term.

Prisoner of conscience Kabduakasov, who is 54, denies the allegations of inciting religious hatred on which he was convicted on 9 November. The charges were initiated by the KNB secret police, who spent more than a year seeking to punish him.

The KNB secret police had been tracking Adventist Kabduakasov for a year as he spoke to others about his faith. The KNB appear to have rented the flat to which four university students invited him for religious discussions, appear to have organised the secret filming of the meetings with at least two hidden cameras, and prepared the prosecution case.

The KNB secret police finally arrested Kabduakasov in Astana on 14 August, accused of violating Criminal Code Article 174, Part 2. This punishes "incitement of social, national, clan, racial, or religious discord" by repeat "offenders" with prison terms of between five and ten years. On 9 November at the end of his first trial, Astana's Saryarka District Court No. 2 sentenced Kabduakasov to seven years' restricted freedom under Article 174, Part 1. He was allowed home that day to begin serving his sentence (see F18News 9 November 2015

The 9 November verdict also ordered nine Christian books confiscated in searches at the time of Kabduakasov's arrest to be destroyed (see F18News 8 December 2015

Appeal hands down two-year prison term

Kabduakasov appealed against the decision to Astana City Court, as did the Prosecutor, Asylzhan Gabdykaparov. Kabduakasov sought the overturning of the sentence and his full acquittal. The Prosecutor sought seven years' imprisonment in place of the restricted freedom sentence.

The appeal hearing began under Judge Gulnara Mergenova on 22 December, with a further hearing on 25 December. At the final appeal hearing on 28 December, the Judge handed down the two year prison term and officials arrested him at the end of the hearing.

Prisoner of conscience Kabduakasov's lawyer Gulmira Shaldykova described the two-year prison term to Madi Bekmaganbetov of Radio Free Europe's Kazakh Service as "too harsh". She pointed out that Kabduakasov has eight children, six of them still minors. She said she would discuss with her client whether to appeal against the verdict to a higher court.

Kabduakasov's Pastor, Andrei Teteryuk of Astana's Adventist Church, condemned the sentence as a violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights documents that Kazakhstan has signed up to. "Freedom of religious confession and of conscience is the basic civil right in any society recognised as democratic and constitutional," he told Bekmaganbetov of Radio Free Europe.

The person who answered the phone of Investigator Gabdykaparov later on 28 December listened to Forum 18's request to speak to him and then put the phone down without responding. All subsequent calls went unanswered.

The telephone of KNB secret police investigator Belesov, who prepared the initial case, went unanswered each time Forum 18 called the same day.

Forum 18 
Радиы Азаттык 


For the Russian Orthodox, a Nationalist Paradox

The following piece is written by Cory Bender and Wade Kusack.  Cory Bender is the Program Officer for Eurasia at the Institute for Global Engagement. Wade Kusack is the Director of the Religious Freedom Department at Mission Eurasia.

Ukraine has created a crisis for the Kremlin, or at least that’s what a string of recent op-eds has claimed. Whether it’s economic malaise, fissures in Putin’s inner circle, or the possibility of democratic revolution, analysts are eagerly searching for chinks in Putin’s armor. Less discussed, however, has been a slow-burning crisis in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

The ROC has its cameos in Western news coverage of Ukraine. The “Orthodox Army” ravaging the Donbass and molesting religious minorities, in particular, has drawn some attention. But it would be wrong to assume that the Kremlin, or even the Moscow Patriarchate (the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church), are directly responsible for these atrocities. Mostly to blame are Russian Orthodox zealots motivated by religion rather than instructions from Moscow. Moreover, these freelancing faithful are creating serious problems for the Russian Orthodox Church, and if it can’t rein them in, the church could become dangerously divided.

These zealots—whom some scholars have branded “Nationalist Orthodox”—claim to be loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church. At the same time, however, they view the Church leadership in Moscow as traitors. They derisively call them “Nikodimovtsy,” after Metropolitan Nikodim, whom they vilify for his conciliatory stance towards other branches of Christianity. The Nikodimovtsy, according to the Nationalist Orthodox, include many of the ranking bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church—and Patriarch Kirill himself.

The Nationalist Orthodox share many of the same assumptions as more moderate Russian Orthodox. They both see Moscow as the Third Rome—an idea stretching back centuries that posits Russia as the last bastion of true Christianity. On this view, Western liberalism is the primary threat to Russian statehood today, and as such Russia must be protected from Western proselytism—whether it be religious proselytism by Protestants, or human rights proselytism by the State Department.

But the Nationalist Orthodox take this to an extreme. While the Moscow Patriarchate noisily opposes what it sees as Western attempts to subvert Orthodox Russia, it accepts that Russia must coexist with the West. Nationalist Orthodox, on the other hand, see the West through the lens of New World Order conspiracies: as a stew of international Jewry, Wall Street banks, imperialistic military and political forces, and demonic religious movements. For them, Russia cannot coexist with the West; one or the other must be annihilated.

This violent fanaticism of the Nationalist Orthodox faction has put the Russian Orthodox officialdom in a bind. The Russian Orthodox affiliate in Ukraine, called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), is hardly able to balance its affiliation with Moscow and its Ukrainian congregants’ patriotism. This has led to speculation that the UOC-MP may seek to break its ties with Moscow; already, dozens of churches have left the UOC-MP to move to its Kiev-affiliated sister church. But the Russian Orthodox Church’s problems aren’t limited to Ukraine: the divide between Orthodox officialdom and militant nationalists is emerging in Russia as well.

Aware of this, the Kremlin is trying to assert control over nationalist fringe fighters. It sacked the swashbuckling Igor Strelkov, a key leader of the Nationalist Orthodox fighters in Ukraine, and may have even assassinatedother separatist leaders that were too hot to handle. More ominously, Russian border guards are reported to have killed hundreds of retreating separatist fighters rather than allowing them to enter Russia.

But the root of the problem facing Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate is not a few firebrands, but rather the ideological poison of religious nationalism itself. This ideology survives on generalized hatred of the West and its values, while doing little to define a positive identity and a path forward. The Kremlin and the Orthodox Church themselves have stoked this fire, and now it is burning out of their control.

The (potentially) good news for Russia is that this nationalism is still changing. If Russian leaders could divert the flood of patriotic fervor into positive channels, it could stem the tide of militancy, and possibly even help to lift Russia out of its social and economic rut. The ROC would have to play an important and courageous role in any such effort.

Given current trends within the Church, however, the prospects for this look dim. Priests that preach reconciliation are marginalized, while Nationalist Orthodox are promoted. The Moscow Patriarchate, for its part, sees all of this as a kind of balancing act: not wanting to buckle under the pressure of ultraconservatives, while not wanting to run afoul of the Kremlin.

This balancing act will probably fail. And when it does, the Church, like so many in eastern Ukraine, may find itself hostage to extremists.