News

Death of Pastor Artur Suleymanov and the Christian Enlightenment of the Dagestan People

July 29, 2010
By: Roman Lunkin

The Christian mission in Russia periodically runs into major hardships, and its best and most energetic missionaries are often subject to major dangers—or they are simply killed. Such was the fate of Pastor Artur Suleymanov, who was assassinated by a bullet to the head directly outside his place of worship, the Pentecostal church “Osanna,” on Beybulatov Street in Makhachkala, Dagestan around 7 p.m. on July 15. However, it is not just Protestant missionaries who live with these dangers; on November 19, 2009, Father Daniil Sysoev, a brilliant publicist and uncompromising Orthodox missionary, was killed simply for preaching to Muslims in Moscow. It is no wonder that the head of the (Pentecostal) Christians of Evangelical Faith of Russia, Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, drew a connection between these two separate murders.

Many representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church admit that Russia, on the whole, needs re-Christianization--a new baptism, so to speak. Attempts to resolve this problem in the framework of social discussion, as well as strengthening the role of Orthodox Christianity in many spheres of life under the Patriarch Kirill (Moscow Patriarchate), are already provoking controversy, conflict, and often unfounded criticism of the Orthodox Church. However, aside from the mission of church representatives among potential Orthodox believers, there is one that is even more complicated and dangerous—namely, working in those specific national republics where Islam is generally considered to be the “traditional” religion.

Artur Suleymanov had become one of the pioneering missionaries to have attained any real success among Muslims. He was one of the best-known Christian clergymen in Russia—not only because he was a charming, cheerful person, but because he also managed to create the largest Protestant church in the North Caucasus region - the Evangelical Christian Church “Osanna” in Makhachkala. From the very beginning of his mission, Pastor Artur Suleymanov prayed for the salvation of the Dagestan People; and even as threats poured down on his brotherhood and his missionaries, Pastor Suleymanov did not retreat nor, seemingly, did he pay any particular attention to the hardships that came his way.

The transition to Christianity (mainly Pentecostalism) has been an unexpected and psychologically complex choice for residents of Dagestan, but one that nonetheless captured the hearts of many hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals in Dagestan. The success of this particular mission in the post-Soviet period has yet to be fully understood; but it was, to be certain, Artur Suleymanov’s preaching that provided the impetus for the contemporary Christianization of the people of Dagestan. The existing Orthodox parish in Makhachkala has never, as a rule, claimed to be a representative of the local Muslim people, and it consists mostly of ethnic Russians, with rare exceptions. Christianity, including Orthodoxy, has never been widespread on the territory of the North Caucasus, with the exception of a few population centers where Russians hold a more prominent place. In the 19th century, there were some attempts to carry out missionary work among the local Muslim population in the Caucasus region, which yielded virtually no results. For the most part, the only Orthodox believers who remained in this region were Russians. After the collapse of the USSR, there were no Orthodox missions functioning among Muslims; and as such, the Orthodox Church considers the republics in the North Caucasus to be the “canonical” territory of Islam, which is also one of the “traditional” religions of Russia. However, for missionaries, it is often the case that there are no such conventions or barriers in pursuing their one and only task—the dissemination of their faith.

Dagestan has become a territory open to missionaries; but as in many other regions of Russia, purely foreign missions have not attained great success. In this particular republic, American missionary activity ended rather sadly. In the 1990s, Western missionaries made several attempts to organize Christian congregations of Dagestan residents. These attempts were met with modest success. In all, 5-7 congregations, each consisting of 10-50 individuals, were established. The story of the American missionary Herbert Gregg from the organization World Team, which founded the “Good News” Church in Makhachkala in 1995, has become rather renowned. Pastor Gregg taught English at the Dagestan Pedagogical University, and he also led lessons with children at an orphanage - playing basketball with them and teaching them English. But in 1998, Gregg was abducted by militants and taken to Chechnya. The insurgents demanded a $1 million ransom for the American pastor. Gregg endured terrible acts of torture and humiliation, including the militants’ chopping off his finger. The U.S. government authorities, including President Clinton, turned to the Russian authorities to request their help so that Gregg could be released. He was finally freed in June 1999, after eight months of captivity and then left Russia forever. Nonetheless, even after his departure, there remained a small Pentecostal congregation in the region, mainly comprised of Dagestanian students.

But a truly remarkable—even a massive—presence in the life of Dagestan is the Pentecostal church “Osanna,” founded by Artur Suleymanov, an Avar convert to Christianity and a heating systems engineer by training. In 1999, the author of this article conducted sociological field research in Makhachkale, where he conversed with Pastor Suleymanov himself in the “Osanna” church (and further communicated with him on several occasions in Moscow). Materials about the “Osanna” church were published in the Atlas of Contemporary Religious Life in Russia and in the digest Religion and Society: Outline of the Contemporary Religious Life of Russia in articles on the Northern Caucasus and on Christian missions among the native peoples of Russia. Together with this, and now with the passing of 11 years since the enlightenment of Makhachkala, it can be said that the “Osanna” church and its pastor have remained the brightest and most unique example in our country of a big national church that has overcome local stereotypes and transformed traditional ways of life.

The Evangelical Christian Church (Pentecostal) “Osanna” in Makhachkala has been actively carrying out work among Muslims for more than 16 years already—in terms of its missionary work, the authorities and the Islamic leading figures must take it seriously (about 1000 people currently belong to the church). The story of this particular church is one of the gradual formation of an ethnically-balanced congregation. In 1993, Artur Suleymanov became a member of a Baptist congregation. In 1994, he met an American national, Jim Price, a pastor of an Evangelical church in Tennessee who was also teaching economics at the University of Dagestan. Jim Price headed up a group that had broken away from the Baptists; he later returned to his homeland, leaving Artur Suleymanov behind to follow in his footsteps as pastor. In 1994, at the initiative of several members of the Baptist congregation, the group began to rent a hall, and from that moment, open sermons for people in Dagestan began. From the beginning of the “Osanna” church’s work, individual Muslims came to the services almost every Sunday to try to break up the meetings, jumping onto the stage and tearing away the microphones. Also, beginning in 1999, other Muslims, usually students from Islamic schools, would come at the end of the meetings to try to anti-evangelize members of the congregation.

The preaching of Pentecostalism in the region found its greatest success among the Laks. For this reason, ethnic leaders of the Lak people were especially outraged by the work being carried out by “Osanna.” At the end of the 1990s, Nadir Khachilaev, the leader of the Lak people who is an advocate of an Islamic state, spoke out publically on several occasions, uttering threats toward Suleymanov. A special meeting was eventually arranged between Suleymanov and Khachilaev, and after this event, Khachilaev stopped publicly denouncing “Osanna.” When I asked him how he managed to convince a radically-inclined Muslim—not to mention one who aspired to build an Islamic state—to come to terms with the successful sermon of Christianity among his fellow tribesmen, Pastor Artur responded, “God spoke through my lips, and He knows how to be convincing.”

But we should nevertheless not fool ourselves. In Dagestan, the conversion of the native people has always been met with stiff resistance. For many indigenous residents of Dagestan, Orthodoxy and Christianity as a whole are, above all, a Russian religion and are perceived as the faith of their enemies. But the activities of the Charismatic church “Osanna” in such a dangerous place—near the border of Chechnya—demonstrated the possibility of the existence of Christianity among the Dagestan people, which has shed the typical characteristics of a “Russian faith” and has become closer to the culture of the Dagestan people with the help of sermons and a Bible in their own native language. At the very least, the church’s pastor, Artur Suleymanov, managed to resolve the ethnic issues that once existed in the church with the help of competent work involving the relatives of the Dagestanian believers. Some new believers have been thrown out of their homes, while others have been threatened; but at church, they are told that they should love their relatives even more. Conflicts often emerged at meetings between relatives and Pastor Artur Suleymanov, as they would become outraged and threaten him; but the Pastor took a peace-loving stance. This often led to situations where the pastor, believers, and relatives of the new convert find a convert; and from time to time, the furious relatives even become members of the “Osanna” church.

This Christian congregation, despite stereotypes often associated with preconceptions of Protestant congregations as denying all traditions, has effectively become an ethnic and a cultural center. Under the church, musical and dance groups have been organized, which also perform national dances. Theatrical productions are regularly undertaken in the “Osanna” church’s theater. The children of church members can study at the Sunday school. Church members sponsor orphanages and render humanitarian assistance. The “Osanna” church actively distributes the Gospels and Christian literature in the languages of the Dagestan people. In addition, at services that take place in home study groups, hymns are sung in the Lak language. Because of the harshly negative attitude of the family members of Dagestanian believers with respect to their conversion to Christianity, many choose not to attend services at church, instead preferring only to attend home-based study groups—or even to become “secret” Christians. An especially large number of such “secret” Christians may be noted in villages where the “Osanna” church has proselytized among the local population. In such aouls (mountain villages), conversion to Christianity can be directly linked to resultant death threats; in one such aoul, a member of the “Osanna” church was killed at the beginning of 1999. The “Osanna” church’s Christian missions nonetheless continue to take place in several villages of Dagestan, primarily in Southern Dagestan, where the situation is more stable than in the North (for instance, there is a congregation in Izberbash). In Derbent, the capital of Southern Dagestan, a congregation of the “Osanna” church grew out of a mission of the Krasnoyarsk church “Vinogradnik” (in 1997-1998, the Norwegian missionary Rik Fiesna made the move from the “Vinogradnik” church in Krasnoyarsk to Derbent). This mission was successful and a Lezgian national church was even founded.

With respect to the position taken by state bureaucrats, Suleymanov’s congregation never experienced any pressure or harassment (the local authorities would otherwise only be able to act against the mission in the regions). On the whole, government authorities in the republic behave with tolerance towards adherents to Christianity. In addition to the Orthodox Church, the authorities display tolerance towards other faiths, including towards Protestants. Furthermore, Pastor Artur Suleymanov came to become a member of the Expert-Consultative Council that operates under the aegis of the Government of Dagestan. In 2000, the republic’s authorities concluded an agreement on joint social and charitable works with the “Osanna” church. In accordance with this agreement, the church received greater opportunities to carry out its social work.

Exceptional missionaries often leave their mark in the history of this people more deeply than the heritage left behind by writers or artists. A missionary is one who sows the Word, nurtures faith in individuals, and after his death, the seeds that he has sown may bear such fruit that even the missionary himself did not expect in his lifetime. It is hardly surprising that the Russian Bible Society, in sending its condolences in the wake of the murder of Artur Suleymanov, recalled one of the founders of their mission—the father of Aleksandr Menya (September 9, 2010, will mark the passing of 20 years since his murder). They noted, “20 years have passed, but books about A. Menya continue to be read by thousands of people, who find faith and hope for themselves. In this time, the Russian Bible Society has distributed hundreds of thousands of Bibles and Gospels. Thus, one can kill a holy person, but one cannot kill the cause that he served. It will endure, for century upon century. And this is the everlasting memory for which we pray, in remembrance of our mentors.”

A true missionary with a fervent heart and true faith only continues to goes further, never looking back, feeling within himself the strength that God has given him. It is due precisely to such missionaries that the news of salvation has been spread through the whole world, but it is exactly these missionaries who paid the least heed to the conditions and dangers of the realities that actually surrounded them. Pastor Artur Suleymanov - a man who wanted to deliver a whole people for eternal life - was exactly that kind of missionary.

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