OSLO, Norway (BP)–An investigation has been launched in Tajikistan into the killing of a Baptist pastor in a region known for its devotion to Islam, according to Forum 18 News Service.
The head of the Central Asian country’s Baptist Union, Aleksander Vervai, told Forum 18 that unknown intruders burst into a churchyard in the northern Tajik town of Isfara and used automatic weapons to shoot Sergei Besarab through a window at 9 p.m. Jan. 12.
At the time he was shot, Besarab was kneeling in prayer, the Baptist Union leader said. When his wife, Tamara, rushed in from another room, the pastor/missionary already was dead.
A deputy interior minister, Abdurahim Qahhorov, told the Asia-Plus news agency Jan. 14 that law enforcement agencies were taking measures to find the criminals. Asia-Plus added that a group led by another deputy interior minister, Said Juraqulov, left for Isfara on Jan. 13 to launch an investigation into the case.
Ikhbol Teishiev, a correspondent at Isfara television, told Forum 18 from the town on Jan. 14 that local police have refused to comment on Besarab’s murder. The pastor’s active missionary work — which included distributing Tajik-language evangelistic booklets — had aroused the anger of some local people, Teishiev said. The reporter added that a week before Besarab’s death, the local paper Nasimi Isfara had published an article sharply critical of his missionary work. The article also pointed out that Besarab had been imprisoned four times.
Rashid Shamsizade, a Baptist pastor in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, readily admitted Besarab’s criminal past. “We conduct services in prisons and indeed it was there that we met Besarab,” he told Forum 18 on Jan. 14. “After he got to know the Holy Scripture he became a completely different person — he was indeed born again.” Besarab had become an active church member after his release from prison and was soon sent to Isfara as a missionary, Shamsizade recounted, adding that it is difficult to assess this early whether Besarab had been murdered because of his religious activity.
According to Forum 18, the population in the Isfara region is generally more devoutly Muslim than in other parts of the country. Alcoholic beverages are banned in many villages in the district, for example, and many women can be seen wearing a hijab in public. On occasion, local Muslims have even burned down shops selling alcohol.
Also noted by Forum 18:
— Tajikistan’s president, Imomali Rahmonov, announced during a July 2002 visit to the district that three men from Isfara who had fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban were being held at the United States’ detention center at Guantanamo.
— The Isfara district also has 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 added that devout Muslims in the area have often spoken of their opposition to Christian missionary work among fellow Muslims, a view that reflects the interpretation of Islmaic Sharia law that requires the execution of those who are born Muslim but convert to other faiths.
Igor Rotar is the Central Asia correspondent for Forum 18 News Service. Used by permission.