ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) – A pastor in the Russian republic of Dagestan known for founding the biggest Protestant church in the region and for successfully reaching out to Muslims has been killed by unidentified gunmen, local authorities have confirmed.
Artur Suleimanov, 49, pastor of Hosanna Christian Church in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, was shot on the evening of July 15 while leaving his church building.
The identity of the shooters remains unclear, but in the weeks leading up to the killing, Dagestan media broadcast calls for people to take measures against Suleimanov because he was too "active" and converted ethnic Muslims.
Suleimanov founded Hosanna Christian Church in Makhachkala in 1994. It started out as a small prayer group, but now with 1,000 members it is the largest Protestant church in the Northern Caucus region. According to a letter Suleimanov wrote to Compass several years ago, 80 percent of the congregation is made up of former Muslims.
The congregation established other branch churches throughout Dagestan and a formal Bible study center at the Makhachkala church. Suleimanov also equipped the church to distribute food and other aid to residents of the poverty-ridden country.
His death follows the shooting of Orthodox priest Daniil Sisoev of St.Thomas church in Moscow last November; a Muslim group claimed responsibility for the slaying.
Suleimanov is survived by his wife, Zina, and five children.
Dagestan is a small Russian republic of about 2.6 million people in the Caucus Mountains on the border with Chechnya. Ethnic Avars, Dargins and Lezgins, who are all traditionally Muslim, make up almost 75 percent of Dagestan's population. In total, 91 percent of the population is Muslim, with the remaining 9 percent being Christian, mostly Russian Orthodox.
Because of Dagestan's location, its population is trapped in a long-standing feud between Russia and the Chechen separatists fighting next door. The political realities of the conflict often bleed into Dagestan, resulting in civilian deaths.
The Russian government has from time to time cracked down on the Wahhabis, a sect of Sunni Islam with separatist tendencies. The Muslims in turn persecute Christians, because they see Christianity, and Orthodoxy in particular, as a Russian religion. Many converts to Christianity have to practice their faith in small, discreet home groups.
As an ethnic Avar, Suleimanov was considered by many Muslims to be an apostate and therefore deserving of death. But part of his success in reaching people was the fact that he was native to the region. Missionaries from outside Dagestan have met with mixed success.
In 1998, Herbert Gregg, one of the few U.S. pastors to live in Dagestan, was kidnapped. He was taken to Chechnya, where he was tortured, including having one of his fingers cut off. He was released after eight months of captivity and no longer lives in Russia.
Sergei Ryakhovsky, a Pentecostal minister active in Russia who presided over Suleimanov's funeral, compared his killing to the 2009 shooting of Orthodox priest Sisoev.
On Nov. 19, 2009, a masked gunman entered St. Thomas church in Moscow and shot Sisoev four times. Sisoev, who was also known for his work among Muslims, died while being transported to a hospital. Before the shooting, he received numerous death threats from Islamic activists. After the shooting, a Muslim group linked to the Caucuses claimed responsibility for the killing.
A month later in Makhachkala, Russian law enforcement officers shot and killed Beksultan Kerybekov. According to police, Kerybekov pulled out a pistol and threw a grenade at a police substation when traffic officers stopped him to check his identification. Police later said the pistol found on his body forensically matched the weapon used in the Sisoev slaying.
"It seems that [Suleimanov's killing] is in the same row with the murder of the Orthodox priest," Ryakhovsky said to Interfaks-religion news agency. "But you cannot scare Christians with murders; for Christians to die for Christ is an honor."
One of the publications calling for action against Suleimanov drew links between the missionary activities of Suleimanov and Sisoev among Muslims.
The Moscow-based Slavic Centre for Law and Justice and the Institute of Law and Religion issued a statement about Suleimanov shortly after the shooting. Saying he was a charming man and one of the most well-known Christian ministers in Russia, they called him a "true missionary with fervent heart and sincere faith."
"He was a man of faith who fearlessly preached the gospel, sharing the faith in Christ with people even in difficult circumstances," the statement read. "Since the beginning of his mission, Pastor Artur Suleimanov prayed for the salvation of Dagestan nations, despite all the difficulties and threatening that the community and preachers faced."