During her husband’s imprisonment, a pastor’s wife was helped and encouraged by the widow of a Christian martyr.
With a satisfied smile, Gulnora Kholmatov set a large plate of steaming osh, Tajikistan’s national dish of lamb and rice, in the centre of the table. From her seat at the table, Gulnora’s friend and mentor, Tamara, noted the changes she has seen in the family. “I remember when I came to Gulnora the first time, she was afraid to even open the door,” Tamara said. “Now I see that she is very different.”
Two years earlier, Gulnora was living in Tajikistan’s second largest city with her husband, Bakhrom Kholmatov, who pastored the Sonmin Sonbogym (Good News of Grace) Protestant Church in Khujan. The church had been established by South Korean missionaries years earlier, and Bakhrom had been its pastor for approximately 20 years. He also led smaller gatherings in surrounding cities and taught at a discipleship school.
Although Tajikistan guaranteed its citizens religious freedom after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1994, it retains a Soviet-era flavour with a strong police force and long-standing dictator. In 2009, a new religion law decreed mandatory registration for all religious groups, banned unregistered activity and proselytism, and placed strict controls on the content, publication and importation of religious materials.
Eventually, authorities decided the evangelical activities of Pastor Bakhrom and the Sonmin Sonbogym Church had gone far enough. In February 2017, officers of the State Committee for Religious Affairs interrupted worship at a smaller church Bakhrom pastored and proceeded to beat those in attendance. Insulting and swearing at church members, the officers demanded they renounce their faith.
Then, on 10 April, agents raided the Sonmin Sonbogym Church and arrested Bakhrom. Citing as evidence the Christian songs found on his computer and the Josh McDowell book More Than a Carpenter found among his possessions, authorities sentenced Pastor Bakhrom to three years in prison for his ‘extremist’ views.
Following Bakhrom’s imprisonment, Gulnora and their children suddenly found themselves in a situation they never expected. “When he was first arrested, I couldn’t even sleep,” Gulnora said. “I just walked around the house. For two weeks we did not eat; we were just so stressed and worried. We were afraid of everything.”
Gulnora and Bakhrom were the first in their respective families to leave Islam and place their faith in Christ. Their families did not understand why they chose to follow Jesus, and Bakhrom’s arrest seemed further proof that the couple was doing something wrong. With no support from extended family, Gulnora had become the sole provider for their three teenage children.
Thankfully, she did receive support from some of the few thousand believers in Tajikistan. When her husband was moved to a prison eight hours away and health problems prevented her from visiting more than once every couple of months, a team of believers from all over Tajikistan visited Bakhrom regularly to provide food and encouragement.
God provided Gulnora herself with support from one of the few Christian women in the country who could truly empathise – Tamara Besarab. Tamara’s late husband, also a pastor, had been shot and killed in their home in 2004 while Tamara was in an adjacent room.
Tamara was compassionate but firm with Gulnora. “The first time [Tamara] came here,” Gulnora recalled, “she told me, ‘Your husband is alive. He will come back. Mine is gone.’”
As Gulnora struggled with her own emotions, she was also trying to help her children understand their father’s imprisonment. “We had a lot of questions at first,” said their oldest son, Firdavs.
“Why our family? Why our dad?”
When the kids were able to accompany Gulnora on a visit to see Bakhrom, they asked their questions directly. In response, Bakhrom told his children to look up Acts 20:24 (ESV), which says, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God.”
In his three-minute phone calls home, Bakhrom urged the children not to feel ashamed of his imprisonment. “I did not kill anybody,” he reminded them. “I did not steal anything. When I stand up in front of God, I will not be ashamed.”
Firdavs said his father’s example has had a profound effect on his faith. “Our God is great,” said Firdavs, “and we believe we will come out of this situation with a strong spirit.”
The family suffered another discouraging setback when the government confiscated the Sonmin Sonbogym Church’s facilities. Authorities argued that the church was not legally registered, even though it had registered in 1994 and again in 2009 when the religion law was passed.
Despite the government’s attempt to shut them down, church members found a creative way to continue their worship and work. Since authorities had locked the sanctuary doors but not confiscated the property, the believers made a temporary sanctuary out of a shipping container and continued to worship. They also continued serving weekly meals to anyone who needed them, an important ministry in the economically underdeveloped country. “They took the building, but they didn’t take the church,” Gulnora said.
More than two years into her husband’s imprisonment, Gulnora was eagerly anticipating his expected release in six months. “We have passed through the most difficult time already,” she said. “It was not just us; we had people with us going through it. So praise God for our brothers and sisters. I don’t know how we would feel without their prayers and support.”
Gulnora and her family received letters from all over the world, further evidence that the worldwide body of Christ was standing with them in their trial. Although they weren’t allowed to bring the letters to Bakhrom, they sometimes shared the sentiments of their fellow believers. “It [was] a big encouragement for him,” Gulnora said.
Bakhrom received an unexpected early release in December 2019 and returned to his family. The government, however, has threatened to revoke the residency permits of two of his children who attend university in another country because of their affiliation with an ‘extremist’. Both the children and their parents remain committed to their faith and to serving the Lord.
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