Another Church Bomb Attempt Confirmed in Tajikistan

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

New Year's Eve Bomb Concealed in Basket of Chocolates
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, January 24 (Compass) -- A third New Year's Eve attack against a Christian church in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan has been confirmed this past week by Korean Christians linked with Grace Sonmin Church in Dushanbe.

In contrast to two other bombings that damaged empty church buildings in the capital on December 31, this was described as "a deliberate attempt" to kill or injure church members. The bomb device was concealed in a basket of chocolates and sent to a church in a town outside Dushanbe.

When the anonymous basket was delivered to the targeted church, a local woman evangelist of Russian descent immediately became suspicious.

"Neighbors had been anything but kind to the church," a recent visitor to Dushanbe told Compass. The town, which church sources declined to identify, is located in the heart of Tajikistan's Islamist resistance movement.

As the evangelist cautiously uncovered the basket, she spotted a battery hidden under the chocolates. Calling to one of the church members, she asked him to take the basket out of the church quickly. The man ran across the street and put down the basket, which exploded as he was running back. Although a video store along the street was damaged, no one was injured.

The attacked church is one of a handful of "daughter churches" begun in outlying towns of Tajikistan by the Grace Sonmin Church of Dushanbe. The mother congregation suffered a deadly October 1 bombing, which killed nine worshippers and wounded another 49 during a Sunday morning service.

In the wake of the October tragedy, Tajik authorities arrested more than a dozen of the local church leaders, subjecting them to stiff interrogation as "likely suspects." In some cases, authorities demanded the leaders deny their Christian faith in return for release.

Hard-line members of Tajikistan's secret police had reportedly been pressuring the church over the past year regarding its large number of Muslim-background members, threatening to cancel its official government registration.

The October attack was believed to have been instigated by a Muslim leader teaching at Dushanbe's Tajik Islamic Institute, one church source told Compass. The teacher reportedly commented publicly to his students, "How can you stand a Christian church flourishing in your town? What are you going to do about it?"

According to local sources, only two Muslim seminary students named as suspected bombers are under arrest, with the Muslim cleric remaining at large. Tajik authorities claim all three are under arrest, facing trial and possible capital punishment, although the name of the third has never been released.

While stressing that investigations are still not completed, government officials have declared that the attackers received terrorist training in Afghanistan, and were perpetrators of at least two other attacks in the country before they were apprehended in their home village of Kolkhozabad, 65 miles south of Dushanbe along the Afghan border.

Currently, the Korean-led Grace Sonmin Church is experiencing harassment from government officials on several aspects of its ministry, including a soup-kitchen program to feed elderly citizens and its Sunday school program involving nearly 500 children.

Local authorities have accused the feeding program of being a lure to convert the poor to Christianity. They also claim the church's Sunday school is illegal, since local laws prohibit the religious conversion of those under 18 years of age. In addition, the church is being investigated on some alleged tax issues, with threats circulating to arrest Rev. Yun Seop Choi, the church's missionary pastor.

The two other church bombings in Dushanbe occurring just minutes apart on the night of December 31 inflicted considerable physical damage on the Russian Orthodox St. Nicholas Cathedral and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

No services were being held in either church at the time, just after 7 o'clock that Sunday evening. One blast destroyed two buildings annexed to the Orthodox church and blew out windows in the Sunday school and church baptistry. A second bomb damaged the wall and windows of the Adventist church and the pastor's home, as well as the gates and fence around the property.

City authorities of Dushanbe issued a statement January 9 repudiating reports from Radio Khurasan, Voice of America, BBC and Radio Liberty that the two Dushanbe church bombings were "allegedly a continuation of the terrorist attacks in the Missionary Center Sonmin and bound up with persecution of non-Muslim confessions."

Noting that the explosions occurred outside the churches, the statement from the press center of the mayor's office declared it premature to label the two December 31 Dushanbe bombings "terrorist acts."

Meanwhile, the congregation of Grace Sonmin Church continues to grow, with 1,000 worshippers attending the first Sunday morning worship service in January, enduring some four hours of bitter cold in the church's still unfinished, unheated building.

According to the Village of Jesus Christ in Seoul, three severely injured Tajik Christians flown to Korea after the October 1 bombing for extensive surgery and rehabilitation had recovered sufficiently by late December to leave their hospital beds at the Seo An Good News Hospital to attend Christmas Eve services. In early January, doctors treating other seriously injured survivors in Dushanbe said they were "dumbfounded by the speed of the recoveries" from shattered ear drums, emotional shock and other traumatic effects.

The poorest of Central Asia's independent states, Tajikistan has a population of six million, most of ethnic Muslim background. The country's fragile peace remains under threat from Islamic extremism, heavy drug trafficking out of Afghanistan, deep-seated corruption and the region's worst drought in a half-century.

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.