By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Chief International Correspondent
MAKHACHKALA/BUDAPEST (Worthy News)-- The pastor of the largest Pentecostal church in Russia's violent, mainly Muslim republic of Dagestan, has died after being shot in the head, in an apparent bid to intimidate converts from Islam, Christian rights activists and police said Friday, July 16.
Artur Suleimanov, 49, himself a convert from Islam, was shot late Thursday, July 15, by a gunman who opened fire while the pastor got into a car outside his Hosanna House of Prayer Church in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, explained Barnabas Fund, an advocacy group supporting Christians in predominantly Muslim nations.
"He died from his wounds in hospital around an hour later," Barnabas Fund added in a statement to Worthy News and its partner agency BosNewsLife. A spokesman for Dagestan's police, Vyacheslav Gasanov, said it was not immediately clear who was responsible for the killing, which involved one or more attackers.
Dagestan, which is over 90 percent Muslim, is plagued by insurgent violence, with many of the militants inspired by or affiliated with Islamic separatists in neighboring Chechnya. Two militants were killed by police in a clash in the town of Khasavyurt the previous day, according to local police.
FAMILY LEFT BEHIND
Pastor Suleimanov leaves behind a wife, Zina, and five children, the youngest of whom is twelve years old, Barnabas Fund said.
"Pastor Suleimanov was a wonderful Christian brother and his shocking death is a devastating loss for the Dagestan church," added the group, which had close contacts with his congregation. "He and the Hosanna House of Prayer church were very active in ministry and outreach in particular. We see his murder as an attempt to put further pressure on Christian converts in Dagestan."
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
The attack came after the pastor recently spoke about alleged harassment by authorities. He said his church had a five-year agreement allowing prison visits "abruptly canceled in early 2010" while officials also "changed" their earlier positive assessment of the church's work with drug addicts.
Forum 18, another rights group, said several Pentecostal pastors have complained that their congregations' lack of freedom was "overwhelmingly due to public attitudes, which prevent some church members from attending Sunday worship even at openly functioning churches in urban locations."
MINISTRY DENIES WRONGDOING
Dagestan's Ministry for Nationality Policy, Information and External Affairs has reportedly denied it imposes restrictions on churches' social work, but added that "the Protestants' activity must be in line with the law."
Barnabas Fund said it urged its supporters in a message to pray that God "will comfort" Pastor Suleimanov’s family and protect his and other churches.
They were also encouraged to pray that those responsible for the attack will be detained, and that local "Christians will not be intimidated by this act of violence."