Vigilantes in the Daghestan town of Buinaksk in the north Caucasus region of Russia beat and burned to death Gadgimurat Gadzhiyev (31) and his wife Tatiana (33) on 3-4 March 1997. Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) converts in this predominately Muslim region, they had been active members of a small church fellowship of eight.
Children have been disappearing in this region, with rumors widespread that they are being murdered for the purpose of selling their organs in the West. Twelve-year-old Shakhvazat Omarova disappeared on 25 February, and her body was discovered 2 or 3 March. A relative of the murdered child accused the Gadzhiyevs of the murder, while local press and TV have carried the family's accusation that Adventists sacrifice children in their worship. Gadgimurat, an Afghan War veteran who converted to Adventism while serving a prison sentence, was on a police list of possible suspects. But on 3 March, before he could be questioned, the Gadzhiyevs (surname of Magomedov in some accounts) were apprehended by relatives of the slain girl, beaten, and tortured. On 4 March the couple was taken to the town square in Buinaksk where a crowd of 3,000 added further blows. Reports differ as to whether or not the Gadzhiyevs were already dead when they were doused with gasoline and set on fire. Local TV recorded and broadcast the burning of their bodies and is reported to have aired the crowd's accusations that Adventists kidnap children. Daghestan Adventists, who insist on the innocence of the Gadzhiyevs, fear additional violence.
A number of official SDA responses in the West downplayed the idea that Adventists in Daghestan face religious persecution (9 and 14 March); and two such pronouncements puzzlingly were headed, "Daghestan Tragedy Not Linked to Church" (10 and 14 March). In contrast, Washington-based human rights lawyer Lauren Homer notes that anti-SDA statements accompanied the deaths of the Gadzhiyevs and that press and TV coverage, both locally and in other parts of Russia, included anti-SDA accusations. (E-mail from Lauren Homer to author, 24 March 1997.)
Before glasnost, Soviet authorities required officially recognized Russian Orthodox, Evangelical Christian-Baptist, and Adventist churches to publicly disassociate themselves from their members who ran afoul of Soviet authorities. Traveling in the West, or in meetings with Western delegations, church leaders defended Soviet peace policy and denied state hostility towards religion. If believers found themselves in labor camps, their sentences were said to have been the result of their breaking the law, not their faith. (See Kent Hill, Soviet Union on the Brink; Jane Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church, A Contemporary History; Walter Sawatsky, Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II; and Marite Sapiets, True Witness; the Story of Seventh Day Adventists in the Soviet Union.)
Certain official Western SDA statements (9 and 10 March 1997) appear to have followed a similar, pre-glasnost pattern in downplaying the possibility that religion played a part in this case of two Adventists who ran afoul of a mob and a Muslim majority. However, other official SDA pronouncements and actions of late have identified more closely with the slain couple and have decried this gross miscarriage of justice. A 20 March bulletin from the Adventist World Headquarters approvingly noted the action of the Russian chapter of the SDA-affiliated International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), which appealed to major Russian government leaders to insure that those guilty of the murder of the Gadzhiyevs would be brought to justice. It noted that "without any investigation or proof of guilt in committing a crime," the couple had been "cruelly killed and burned in the presence of a crowd," thereby "arousing . . . national and religious hatred and enmity." In addition, Dr. John Graz, general secretary of IRLA, in a letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, 1) objected to "this violation of basic human rights: the right to be judged according to the law;" 2) cautioned that state inaction might perpetuate "attitudes [which] can destroy the fundamentals of democracy, pluralism, and religious liberty;" and 3) called for a Russian Republic investigation of the murders. The Russian Duma has discussed the case and, according to Moscow News, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has asked the Russian Republic Prosecutor's Office to intervene in the case. The strong Caucasus traditions of clan loyalty and vigilante justice are hampering investigators who fear additional violence if arrests are made for the murder of the Gadzhiyevs.
In summary, it would appear to be a mistake to view the Daghestan murders exclusively as an infringement of religious liberty; and it would appear to be equally a mistake to exclude religious hostility towards converts from Islam among the motivations of the mob. At present, Daghestan is considering its own law on religion which, if enacted, would contradict Russian Republic legislation by providing preferential treatment for Russian Orthodoxy and Islam.
Sources: "Slay Suspects Burn in Russia," Associated Press, 6 March 1997; "Crowd Burns Couple in Daghestan," OMRI Daily Digest, 12 March 1997; e-mail circular from SDA pastor, Rostov-on-Don, "Death of Seventh Day Adventists," 6 March 1997; "An Adventist Couple Lynched," French Adventist Press Service, 7 March 1997; Adventist News Network Release, 9 March 1997; Robert S. Folkenberg, "Daghestan Tragedy Not Linked to Church," SDA Forum, 10 March 1997; "Daghestan Tragedy Not Linked to Church," ANN Bulletin, 14 March 1997; ANN Bulletin press release, 20 March 1997; Mikhail Shevelev, "Vsego: troe ubitykh [Total: Three People Killed]," Moskovskii novosti, 30 March - 6 April 1997, 4; e-mail from Ray Dabrowski, SDA World Headquarters communication director, to Mark Elliott, 25 April 1997; confidential communications to author.
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© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies