Obituary: The Chief Mufti of Tajikistan

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The Independent Online
Tajikistan's leading Muslim cleric, the Chief Mufti Fatkhullo Sharifzoda, was assassinated on 21 January together with his wife and two other relatives by unknown gunmen at his home in the Hissar region, west of the capital Dushanbe. The assassination has been condemned by both the neo-Communist government and members of the Islamist/democratic opposition in this sharply polarised Central Asian republic.

Sharifzoda was born in 1942 in the village of Kizyl in Hissar district of southern Tajikistan. A father of seven, he worked as a manager in the water service while at the same time serving as an unofficial, "parallel" mullah. The Soviet regime allowed only 17 mosques for the entire republic, although some three-quarters of the population was of Sunni Muslim origin. In 1989 Sharifzoda was able to give up work and devote himself full-time to religion as mufti of the main mosque in Hissar.

In 1988, as glasnost finally reached the backwater of Tajikistan, local mullahs broke away from the domination of the Muslim Spiritual Board based in Uzbekistan and elected their own Chief Mufti, Akbar Turajonzoda. He later allied himself strongly with the Islamic Renaissance Party which, together with the Democratic opposition, ousted the Communist regime in Dushanbe in 1992 to form a coalition government. But Communist supporters - with Russian and Uzbek support - fought back, and within months the leaders of the coalition, including Turajonzoda, were forced to flee. Tens of thousands of Tajiks were killed in the brutal civil war.

During the conflict, some mullahs supported the IRP although others, especially in Khodjent region in the north and Kulyab in the south, backed the old regime. A number of mullahs were killed in the fighting or executed for backing the wrong side. Even as the new-Communists were gaining ground, Sharifzoda had made clear his support for them and opposition to attempts by some members of the IRP to install a pro-Islamic regime.

At a Muslim conference in Kulyab in May 1992, he was chosen to head a rival Muftiate to that of Turajonzoda. When the neo-Communists regained Dushanbe and Turajonzoda had fled to Afghanistan, Sharifzoda was installed by the new regime as Chief Mufti in his place. Speaking just after his appointment in February 1993, he pledged not to get involved in politics, while at the same time backing "the new government which has brought stability".

He remained a strong supporter of the government of President Imomali Rahmonov in its continuing drive to suppress remnants of the Islamic and democratic opposition within Tajikistan.

Fatkhullo Sharifzoda (Fatkhulla Sharipov), religious leader: born Kizyl, Tajikistan 1942; married (seven children); died 21 January 1996.