Monday, February 19, 2018

RLPB 443. Dagestan (Russia): terror strikes as tension boils

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 443 | Tue 20 Feb 2018

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by Elizabeth Kendal

click on map to enlarge
On Sunday evening 18 February local Christians gathered in Kizlyar's Russian Orthodox (RO) church to usher in the Eastern Orthodox Lent. The Sunday mass was the culmination of a week-long traditional pre-Lenten festival known as Maslenitsa. Then, terror struck. Father Pavel explains: 'We had finished the mass and were beginning to leave the church. A bearded man ran towards the church shouting "Allahu Akbar" (Allah is greatest) and killed four people. He was carrying a rifle and a knife.' To prevent the gunman getting inside, church members shut and barricaded the door. Police then shot the gunman dead. A fifth woman later died in hospital. A further four people were wounded, one seriously, including at least two policemen and one or two more Christian women. The gunman has been identified as Khalil Khalilov (22), a local Muslim from the Tarumovsky District of Dagestan.

Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, identifying the gunman by his alleged 'nom de guerre', Khalil al-Dagestani and describing him as a 'soldier of the caliphate'. In a video subsequently released by pro-IS media, a man alleged to be the gunman appears dressed in what seems to be the same black vest and camouflage pants, his rifle and knife on display. Sitting cross-legged beside an IS flag, the masked man swears an oath of allegiance to IS.

Doctors examine wounded patients
in a hospital in Kizlyar (EPA)
Kizlyar (where the attack occurred) is located in Dagestan, a majority-Muslim republic in the volatile North Caucasus region of southern Russia. Whilst Dagestan is 90 percent Muslim, Kizlyar -- a town of some 50,000 people, located 170km northwest of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, near the border with Chechnya -- is around 40 percent ethnic Russian. In recent years multitudes of Chechnya's and Dagestan's unemployed and increasingly radicalised Muslim youths have travelled to Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq) to engage in jihad. Known collectively as 'Chechens', jihadists from the North Caucasus are known for being especially fierce and highly skilled, many having been trained by former-Soviet military personnel. According to a recent study, some 3400 'Chechens' have fought with jihadist groups in Mesopotamia; of these, an estimated 400 have returned.

Women comfort each other
following the deadly attack. 
(RU-RTR Russian Television
via Associated Press)
The North Caucasus region has long been a hive of jihadist activity. For decades, Russia has sought to pacify the region by delegating power to local authorities who are loyal to Moscow. This strategy has largely worked in Chechnya where, despite human rights abuses, overall security has improved and economic development has advanced. However, the strategy has failed in more ethnically diverse Dagestan where clan rivalries predominate over nationalism. In an effort to 'decriminalise' the republic and rein in its debt (caused mostly by embezzlement and fraud) Moscow has intervened, replacing clan heads with outsiders. Naturally, Dagestanis are split, with some protesting the intervention and others living in hope that it will ultimately work to improve security and facilitate development. One analyst comments that, since 5 February, Dagestan has come to resemble 'a disturbed anthill'. Doubtless purged officials, criminals and all who had profited from systemic corruption will furiously resist the intervention and be bent on revenge.

As journalist Anton Orech notes, lawless, out-of-control Dagestan has long been home to Russia's 'main Islamist cells' and the source of 'the biggest stream of people to ISIS'.  This is unsurprising, for it is well known that jihadist groups thrive in corrupt and lawless regions. Therefore, we should expect that jihadists too will furiously resist Moscow's intervention and seek to undermine it. It is quite possible that the terror attack on the RO church in Kizlyar was as much an attack on Moscow as on the Christian presence in Dagestan. It may also have been an attempt to trigger religious conflict around which IS could rally trans-national jihadists. Tensions are boiling and terror attacks may well escalate in direct proportion to Moscow's success at cleaning up the republic. 


* the new administration installed in Dagestan; in particular for:
  • Vladimir Vasilyev (68), the eminently qualified ethnic-Kazakh native Muscovite appointed by President Putin on 3 October to serve as Acting Head of Dagestan until elections can be held.
  • Artem Vasilyev (39), the young former Minister of Economy of Tatarstan appointed by Vasilyev on 7 Feb to serve as Prime Minister over Dagestan's new government.  
May God be pleased to use the new administration to bring peace, justice, development and security to Dagestan so that the Gospel will advance and God will be glorified (see 1 Timothy 2:1-4); may resistance be minimal and may the way of the wicked come to ruin (Psalm 146:9).

* the Church in Dagestan -- Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant -- comprised of ethnic Russians and Muslim converts; in particular that:
  • the Lord will pour out his grace on the church in Kizlyar, to bring comfort and peace to those who grieve and are fearful;
  • Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, will deploy his angelic forces to shield priests and churches (which are exposed) as well as lay-persons and house-churches throughout Dagestan as tensions escalate around them. 
'You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.' (Psalm 3:3 ESV)


On Sunday 18 February a local Islamic jihadi attacked Christians as they emerged from Kizlyar's Russian Orthodox church. They had been ushering in Lent when the gunman approached, cried 'Allahu Akbar' and opened fire. To keep the gunman outside, believers barricaded the church door while police shot the gunman dead. Four Christian women were killed instantly; a fifth died later in hospital. Four others were wounded. Islamic State claimed responsibility. More than 3400 Chechen and Dagestani Muslims have travelled to Syria for jihad; an estimated 400 have returned. The attack comes in the wake of an intervention from Moscow aimed at ending clan-based systemic corruption. One analyst likened Dagestan to 'a disturbed anthill'. A new administration has been installed; tensions are boiling. Please pray for Dagestan and its Church.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate.

She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).