Authorities launch investigation
By: Stefan J. Bos
Eastern Europe Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
DUSHANBE / BUDAPEST (ANS) -- Authorities have launched an investigation into the killing of a Baptist pastor and missionary in the northern Tajik town of Isfara, a region known for its devotion to Islam, ASSIST News Service monitored Thursday, January 15.
Forum 18 News Service (F18News) quoted the head of Tajikistan's Baptist Union, Aleksander Vervai, as saying that Monday, January 12 intruders "burst into the yard of the church armed with automatic weapons and shot Sergei Besarab through a window."
He said Besarab was shot while kneeling in prayer. "When his wife Tamara rushed in from another room, he was already dead," F18News reported.
A deputy interior minister, Abdurahim Qahhorov, has told the Asia-Plus news agency that law-enforcement agencies were trying to detain those reponsible for the crime and that investigators led by another deputy interior minister have also left for Isfara.
While police refused to comment on possible motives, local reports say the pastor's active missionary work, such as distributing Tajik-language evangelistic booklets, had aroused the anger of some local people.
A week before his death, the local paper Nasimi Isfara had published an article sharply criticizing Besarab's missionary work and said he had been imprisoned four times.
Rashid Shamsizade, a Baptist pastor from Dushanbe, admitted Besarab's criminal past, but suggested he had accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. "We conduct services in prisons and indeed it was there that we met Besarab," he told F18News.
"After he got to know the Holy Scripture he became a completely different person - he was indeed born again." Following his release from from prison, Shamsizade recalled that Besarab had become an active church member and was soon sent to Isfara as
DIFFICULT TO ASSESS
He stressed it was difficult to assess whether Besarab had been murdered because of his religious activity. However Isfara district is a special part of Tajikistan. Forum 18 claims the population is generally more devoutly Muslim than in other parts of the country.
Alcoholic beverages are reportedly banned in many villages in the district and many women can be seen wearing a hijab in public. On occasion local Muslims have even burnt down shops selling alcohol.
"During a July 2002 visit to the district, Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov announced that three men from Isfara who had fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban were being held at the United States' detention centre at Guantanamo, Cuba," F18News said.
The district has also given strong support to the Islamic Revival Party (IRP). In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the IRP won a large majority in and around Isfara district. In the village of Chorku, for example, it garnered 93 percent of the vote.
Forum 18 said it has "often heard" from devout Muslims in the area of their opposition to Christian missionary work among fellow-Muslims.
That view reflects the interpretation of Sharia law which requires that those born Muslim who convert to other faiths should be executed. Islamic Tajikistan with a roughly 6 million strong population is one of five central Asian republics that formed part of the former Soviet Union.
The republic, described by analysts as a "transitional democracy", became fully independent in 1991.