MOSCOW (Reuters) - A masked gunman entered a church and murdered a Russian Orthodox priest who had received death threats for converting Muslims to Christianity and criticizing Islam, prosecutors and church officials said Friday.
The killing could threaten delicate relations between the powerful majority Russian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Kremlin, and the country’s growing Muslim minority of about 20 million.
The gunman approached priest Daniil Sysoyev, 34, in St Thomas Church in southern Moscow Thursday night, checked his name and then opened fire with a pistol, a spokesman for the investigating committee of the Prosecutor-General’s office said.
“The main theory is that religious motives are behind the crime,” spokesman Anatoly Bagmet said.
Sysoyev died on the way to hospital. His choirmaster was injured in the attack, Bagmet said, and is in hospital under armed guard.
Sysoyev was from Tatarstan, a predominantly Muslim region of Russia on the Volga river. He was threatened after preaching to Muslims and Christians from other denominations.
“I have received 10 threats via e-mail that I shall have my head cut off (if I do not stop preaching to Muslims),” Sysoyev stated on a television program in February 2008, according to Interfax. “As I see it, it is a sin not to preach to Muslims.”
Russia is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community and Islam is the country’s second-biggest faith, something which Sysoyev criticized.
"Islam is far from being a religion in the way we understand it," he said in one of his video lectures posted on YouTube (here).
“Islam can be rather compared with projects like National Socialism or the Communist party seeking to create God’s kingdom on Earth using humanly instruments,” he added.
He also wrote books including “An Orthodox Response to Islam” and “Marrying a Muslim,” in which he advised Russian women against taking a Muslim partner.
Russia has seen a religious revival after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dominant Orthodox Church has become an important political force. Its leader, Patriarch Kirill, is frequently seen in public with Russian and foreign leaders.
But Orthodox bishops have complained that rival Christian denominations are seeking to make converts on its territory and Islam is spreading fast among a sprawling community of migrants from predominantly Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union.
The Russian Patriarch’s press service refused to comment on the murder but some of Sysoyev’s Orthodox colleagues referred to Muslim attacks on him prior to the killing.
“Father Daniil ... has been periodically receiving e-mails which said he will be treated as ‘infidel’ if he did not stop polemics with Muslims,” Kiril Frolov, the head of the Orthodox Experts Association, told Interfax news agency.
Russia’s Chief Mufti Ravil Gainuddin expressed his condolences to the Orthodox Church and to Sysoyev’s family. He cautioned against assigning blame prematurely or speculating about the motives for the killing.
“We want to say that we oppose any expressions of terrorism and extremism,” he told reporters. “Islam denounces terror and the murder of an imam, an orthodox priest, is an awful sin...”
Sysoyev also preached against small religious groupings such as Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, viewed as “totalitarian sects” by the Orthodox Church.
Additional reporting by Aydar Buribayev; editing by Michael Stott and Janet Lawrence