(Moscow Times) – Hundreds of mourners gathered Sunday to pay their respects to Father Daniil Sysoyev, a Russian Orthodox priest famous for his missionary work and criticism of Islam, after he was gunned down in his church last week.
Church insiders said the attack, which happened late Thursday in southern Moscow, could have been the work of radical Islamists, who had regularly threatened him for preaching to Muslims. Law enforcement officials said they believed religion was the primary motive in the killing.
The 35-year-old Sysoyev, who led the St. Thomas Church on Kantemirovskaya Ulitsa, was shot point-blank four times by an unidentified man wearing a medical face mask, police said. He was severely wounded and died in an ambulance.
Vladimir Strelbitsky, a 41-year-old regent who was nearby during the attack, was also shot and remains hospitalized in serious condition.
Citing sources with knowledge of the matter, Interfax reported that the killer called Sysoyev twice shortly before the shooting. Viktor Kupriyanchuk, the church’s elder, told Kommersant that the killer burst into the church shouting, “Where’s Sysoyev?” When Sysoyev stepped forward from behind the altar, the assailant shot him several times and attempted to flee.
The shooter encountered and wounded Strelbitsky on his way out of the church, Kupriyanchuk said.
Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said “witness accounts were collected indicating that Father Daniil had long received threats because of his religious activity.”
In February 2008, Sysoyev said on television that he had received “10 threats via e-mail that I shall have my head cut off,” unless he stopped preaching to Muslims. “As I see it, it is a sin not to preach to Muslims.”
Sysoyev was a popular blogger, who also wrote against cults in his LiveJournal blog. An ethnic Tatar, he was a fervent critic of Islam, arguing that coexistence between Christians and Muslims was not possible.
“How can we create a union with people who see a territory not governed by sharia law as a land of war?” he said in the interview on Ekho Moskvy radio in 2005.
In one of his books, “Marriage to a Muslim,” Sysoyev spoke against intermarriage between Muslim and Christians, saying such unions were only possible if Muslims converted. Writing in his blog about the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution earlier this month, Sysoyev said Christians should not even sit at the same table with Communists, comments that angered many on the left.
Although in his books and speeches he tried to refrain from radical remarks often used by the Orthodox Christian right, religion experts said Sysoyev often crossed that line while clashing with his opponents.
“Many of his texts strayed far from political correctness. He often balanced on the edge,” said Alexander Soldatov, a religious commentator and editor of the Credo.ru religious news service.
News of Sysoyev’s death was met with cheers on Internet forums for radical Islamists, with some acknowledging that they had dreamed of knifing him to death personally.
The official leaders of the Russian Islamic community condemned the murder, and Orthodox leaders called for calm.
“We are against any extreme act or act of terror, and we consider the killing of an Orthodox priest a terrible sin,” Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Muftis’ Council of Russia, told reporters Friday.
Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, extended his condolences to Sysoyev’s family and called on investigators to solve the murder.
Sysoyev’s funeral will be held at 10 a.m. at the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, in Yasenevo, after which Kirill will perform the conclusion of the all-night vigil. Sysoyev will be buried at the Kuznetskoye Cemetery in western Moscow.
And while some religious experts told The Moscow Times that the patriarchate had been distancing itself from the outspoken priest, he was popular and respected among the lower-ranking clergy. Sysoyev’s supporters were collecting signatures on a petition over the weekend asking Kirill to make sure that his missionary work is continued.
Father Boris, who leads an Orthodox church outside Moscow, told The Moscow Times that he admired Sysoyev’s books and that he believed the priest was a victim in a war against Christianity unleashed by Muslims.
“When I was reading them, I understood that it will end like this,” he said. “There is a war, and people are being shot. Then they leave the trenches to go to battle. Father Daniil has left his trench.”