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.
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.