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Faith leaders call for calm as murdered priest is buried

Religious tensions rise after death of man who converted Muslims to Christianity

A murdered Russian Orthodox priest was laid to rest in Moscow yesterday, amid fears of rising religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country. Father Daniil Sysoyev was shot dead inside his own church last week, in a killing that many suspect was by Islamic radicals.

Father Sysoyev was a controversial figure, even within the Orthodox Church. He was an active missionary, attempting to convert Muslims to Orthodoxy, and authored a number of books, including one warning Russian women against marrying Muslim men. He also posted a series of online sermons on YouTube dissecting the Islamic faith and making several incendiary claims about the religion.

Late last Thursday night, after the evening service, an intruder burst into Father Sysoyev's small church, located in a drab Moscow suburb. The killer was wearing a surgical mask, brandishing a pistol, and demanded to know where Sysoyev was. When the priest emerged, he was shot twice, in the head and neck, and later died in hospital.

A lengthy funeral service was held for Father Sysoyev yesterday at a church in southern Moscow, presided over by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Priests and friends packed into the small church, while hundreds of mourners gathered outside under a grey Moscow sky to watch the service on a big screen.

"To kill a man of God inside his own church is absolutely disgusting," said Natalia, an elderly mourner who said she had not known the priest personally but respected his views. "If it was the Muslims, there will be hell to pay. Russia is a Christian country and they shouldn't forget that."

In contravention of an unspoken agreement among the major Russian religions not to seek converts among each other's flocks, Father Sysoyev was an active missionary, seeking to proselytise Muslims in the Russian capital. He was known to trawl construction sites looking for migrants from the traditionally Muslim countries of Central Asia, chatting to the workers and suggesting that they convert to Christianity. The priest himself spoke of receiving multiple death threats for his views on Islam.

"You're going to laugh, but the Muslims have again threatened to kill me – the threat was by telephone this time," wrote the priest on his personal blog in early October. "It's already the 14th time. Before it scared me, but I'm already used to it now."

In addition to his missionary work, Father Sysoyev's also held uncompromising and widely publicised views about the Islamic faith. "Islam is an attempt to create a new world order based on the authority of God," said the priest, cloaked in black Orthodox robes, in one of his online videos. "In this sense, it's less like the Orthodox Church or any other kind of church, and more like projects such as National Socialism or the Communist Party."

According to some estimates, there are up to 20 million Muslims in Russia, and the country has avoided large-scale religious conflict, except in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus. Even there, corruption and poverty are seen by analysts as bigger threats than radical Islam.

On a visit to Russia last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelled to Tatarstan, a majority Muslim region, and praised it as a "model for tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Christians".

But the murder of Father Sysoyev threatens to bring underlying tensions to the fore. He is now seen by Orthodox Christians as a modern-day martyr, said Andrei Zolotov, an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church. "This is a very clear case of martyrdom. He was a saint living among us." While not everyone in the Church agreed with his views or methods, his murder will cause "a period of heightened tension," said Mr Zolotov.

Leading Muslim figures publicly condemned the killing and cautioned people against jumping to conclusions about who was to blame, but they are privately worried about the possibility of revenge attacks.

"He was an odious figure, who openly insulted Islam, the Koran, and our prophet," said a high-profile Muslim intellectual who did not want to be named, because of the sensitivity of the situation. Whether or not the murder was perpetrated by Islamic radicals, he said, there is now every chance of a backlash.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see revenge attacks," he said. "The fact that the Patriarch himself led the funeral service is a sign from the authorities that these views are acceptable, and it's very ominous."