TAJIKISTAN: Baptist missionary killed while praying
In the wake of the shooting to death late on 12 January of Baptist pastor and missionary Sergei Besarab, who was gunned down while he prayed, fellow Baptist pastor Rashid Shamsizade has told Forum 18 News Service it is too early to determine whether he was killed because of his religious activity. However, Besarab, a reformed criminal, had been working in the northern town of Isfara in a district noted for the devoutness of its Muslim population. Only a week before his death, a local paper published an attack on Besarab's missionary work. A deputy interior minister is leading the investigation into the killing.
A deputy interior minister, Abdurahim Qahhorov, told the Asia-Plus news agency on 14 January that the law-enforcement agencies were taking measures to detain the criminals. It added that a group led by another deputy interior minister, Said Juraqulov, left for Isfara on 13 January to launch an investigation into the case.
Ikhbol Teishiev, a correspondent at Isfara television, told Forum 18 from the town on 14 January that the local police have refused to comment on Besarab's death. He reported that the pastor's active missionary work – which included distributing Tajik-language evangelistic booklets - had aroused the anger of some local people. He added that a week before his death, the local paper Nasimi Isfara had published an article sharply criticising Besarab's missionary work. The article also pointed out that Besarab had been imprisoned four times.
Rashid Shamsizade, a Baptist pastor from 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 14 January. "After he got to know the Holy Scripture he became a completely different person – he was indeed born again." After release from prison, Shamsizade recalled, Besarab had become an active church member and was soon sent to Isfara as a missionary. He said it was difficult to assess this early whether Besarab had been murdered because of his religious activity.
Isfara district is a special part of Tajikistan. Forum 18 has observed that the population is generally more devoutly Muslim than in other parts of the country. Indeed, alcoholic beverages are banned in many villages in the district and many women can be seen wear a hijab in public. On occasion local Muslims have even burnt down shops selling alcohol.
During a July 2002 visit to the district, Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov announced that three men from Isfara who had fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban were being held at the United States' detention centre at Guantanamo. The district has also 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 has often heard from devout Muslims in the area of their opposition to Christian missionary work among fellow-Muslims, a view that reflects the interpretation of Sharia law that requires that those born Muslim who convert to other faiths should be executed.
For more background see Forum 18's latest religious freedom survey at
A printer-friendly map of Tajikistan is available at
20 November 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Tajikistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the confusion that leads to officials wrongly insisting that registration of religious communities is compulsory. Unregistered religious communities do encounter difficulties with the authorities, but Forum 18 has been told that excesses "are not as a rule state policy, but simply the arbitrary actions of local officials." Compared to neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan generally follows a more lenient policy towards unregistered religious communities. This may be because Tajikistan, after a civil war, is not able to exert such harsh controls as Uzbekistan can. The Tajik authorities are most concerned with controlling Muslim life, because Muslims make up more than 90 per cent of the country's population, and because of the aftermath of the civil war. The possibility exists that government pressure on believers may intensify in the near future, under a proposed new law on religion.
12 November 2003
Forum 18 News Service has found during a visit to Tajikistan's remote and mountainous eastern region that the parts which were governed by compulsory Shariah law during the mid-1990's civil war have now returned to secular Tajik law. Muslims now follow Shariah law only if they choose to do so and the days when local people were forced by armed Tajik opposition groups to pray in mosques are over. Until the year 2000 fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan lived in parts of the region, but they then under pressure crossed into Afghanistan. Forum 18 has also found that in the distinctly Ismaili part of the region there are no Ismaili prayer houses. However, local people do not perceive a need for prayer houses as they can pray at home.
18 September 2003
China's tens of thousands of Ismaili Muslims - ethnic Tajiks concentrated in the north western Xinjiang region - are isolated from the rest of the worldwide Ismaili community, Forum 18 News Service has learnt on a visit to the remote region. The Chinese authorities allow only one Ismaili mosque to function in Xinjiang's Tajik Autonomous District, and children under 18 are not allowed to attend. The mosque's state-appointed imam, Shakar Mamader, admitted that the Chinese authorities do not allow the Aga Khan, the hereditary leader of the Ismaili community, to provide aid to China's Ismailis. "There is absolutely no need for such help as the central government provides very substantial funding to the region," he claimed to Forum 18.