An Islamist gunman shot and killed five women at a church in the Russian republic of Dagestan last Sunday, 18 February. Five others were injured, including at least two police officers; two of the injured are said to be in a critical condition.
The attack occurred late on Sunday afternoon in the town of Kizlyar, 170 km northwest of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. The attacker, armed with a hunting rifle, fired at worshippers leaving a Russian Orthodox service celebrating Maslenitsa, a traditional festival held in the week before Lent.
Four women were killed at the scene and a fifth died later on the operating table at a local hospital where she was being treated for gunshot wounds. One of the women, Lyudmila Shcherbakova, was an award-winning doctor with more than forty years’ experience in Dagestan’s hospitals. (The image below shows doctors examining a wounded patient in hospital in Kizlyar.)
An Orthodox priest at the church, Father Pavel Kaliken, described what happened: “There were fifty or sixty people inside the church, including children and pregnant women,” he said. “We had finished the mass and were beginning to leave the church. A bearded man ran towards the church shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and killed four people. He was carrying a rifle and a knife.”
To prevent the gunman getting into the church building and injuring more people, members of the congregation shut and barricaded the door. Police then shot and killed the gunman, Khalil Khalilov (22), from Dagestan’s Tarumovsky district.
Islamic State stated through its news agency Amaq that one of its “soldiers” had carried out the attack, although it provided no evidence to back up the claim. IS claimed responsibility in the name of its “Caucasus Province”, an official branch set up in 2015, which has claimed several deadly attacks on police in Dagestan.
IS identified the gunman by his nom de guerre of Khalil al-Dagestani, describing him as a “zealous soldier of the caliphate”, and released a video showed a masked man alleged to be the gunman sitting cross-legged beside an IS flag, dressed in black vest and camouflage pants, with a rifle and knife, swearing an oath of allegiance to IS.
Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement expressing shock at the incident: “The patriarch considers this heinous crime on the Great Lent eve as a provocation aimed at sparking hostilities [between] Orthodox believers and Muslims who have been living side by side in peace in the Caucasus for centuries.“
The Dagestan Muftiate – the administrative body for Sunni Muslims in the region – expressed sorrow over the attack and condemned the gunman as a “Wahhabi… one of those who espouse pseudo-Islam, which has no connection to true Islam“.
Wahhabism is the ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam followed by Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and religious establishment.
Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, is the poorest and one of the most corrupt and unstable of the seven federal republics in the volatile North Caucasus region of southern Russia. About 83 percent of Dagestan’s population is Muslim, mostly Sunni, but in the town of Kizlyar where the church shooting took place the population of 50,000 is about 49 percent ethnic Russian.
A very conservative form of Islam has gained prominence in the North Caucasus, with widespread radicalisation of disaffected, unemployed youth. In recent years, more than 3,400 Chechens and Dagestanis have travelled to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and an estimated 400 have returned. Christianity in Dagestan and Chechnya is associated with the Russian “enemy”.
(AFP/BBC/Guardian/Irish Times/Radio Free Europe/Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin/RBK/TASS/World Watch Monitor)