A series of arson attacks on Christian churches in Russia’s predominantly Muslim internal republic of Tatarstan has forced the authorities to offer a reward for information. The radical measure is because investigators suspect terrorist involvement.
Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov chaired a special meeting on the investigation of the church fires and a suspected attempted terrorist attack. Regional officials say that anyone who could provide positive leads to the perpetrators would receive 1 million rubles (about $30,000), and Minnikhanov said he is taking the probe under his personal control.
The first attack took place on November 17 when a gang attempted to set fire to a Russian Orthodox church that is being built in the town of Chistopol. On the same day another fire destroyed a prayer house in the neighboring village of Lenino. On November 28 a fire was set at church in the Mamadysh district of the republic, and in the early hours of the next day the same happened at an abandoned church in the Rybnoslobodsk Region.
Law enforcers have started criminal investigations into vandalism, arsons and violation of the right to freely practice religions. Prosecutors want to classify the incidents as terrorist attacks, but so far this has not happened.
Local authorities have reported that this year there have been fires at eight religious sites in Tatarstan (seven Christian churches and one mosque) and in 2012 there were none. Not all of the fires were caused by arson, but the latest incidents do appear to have been started deliberately.
On Monday Tatarstan’s branch of Russia’s Federal Security Service reported that they had created a likeness of a suspect and established the model of his car.
Tatarstan is Russia’s largest internal republic and most Tatars traditionally follow Islam. However, since the middle ages there is a relatively large group of Christian Tatars, so called Kryashens (”baptized”) who belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Kryashen community denounced the attacks and called for parishioners to organize a neighborhood watch to protect their places of worship.
Influential Muslims in the republic, including the chairman of the local Muslim Spiritual Department, Kamil Samigullin also condemned the church attackers and called upon society to denounce such practices. Deputy Chairman of the Union of Russian Muftis, Rushan Abbyasov, said the fires were a provocation aimed at causing inter-religious and inter-ethnic hatred and stressed that Muslims have also become victims of this plan.
The Christian and Muslim leaders of the republic issued a joint statement saying that all attempts to sow discord among people of different religions would fail.
Vandalism of working religious sites has been relatively rare in modern Russia, until a recent escalation caused by public discussion over the law that introduced criminal punishment for insulting believers’ feelings. The law was prompted by the performance by the punk group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, and passed soon after the group members received their two year sentences for aggravated hooliganism. When the bill was under discussion the number of church desecrations and cross fellings grew, prompting leading clerics to talk about an orchestrated attack against the Orthodox Christian Church.