MOSCOW – The mufti of Russia’s largely-Muslim region of Tatarstan was injured Thursday, July 19, and his deputy was killed in a rare attack on Muslim leaders in the oil-rich republic.
“Terrorism cannot be justified by anything,” Damir Gizatullin, the first deputy chairman of the Spiritual Council of Muslims of European Russia, told Interfax news agency.
“It is especially sad that this barbaric attack took place ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.”
Ildis Faizov, the Mufti of Tatarstan, was injured after a powerful explosion rocked his vehicle in the capital Kazan.
“The Toyota Land Cruiser with the Mufti of Tatarstan inside, Ildus Faizov, was blown up,” the federal Investigative Committee said.
“He was thrown out of the car by the force of the blast. He has been hospitalized with wounds of varying severity.”
Reuters television footage showed the vehicle engulfed in flames and billowing smoke on a wide, green-lined avenue in central Kazan.
Around the same time, deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov was shot dead outside his home, the federal Investigative Committee said.
“A criminal case has been opened into murder,” the committee said in a statement.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks.
Those fighting to carve an Islamic state out of a strip of mainly Muslim regions of the Caucasus along Russia's southern flank sometimes target mainstream Muslim leaders, who are backed by the authorities.
They have issued appeals to Muslims in other regions of the predominantly Orthodox Christian country, where Muslims are a minority of about 15 percent, to join their fight.
Rebel leader Doku Umarov last year warned that his fighters were on a mission to “free the lands of our brothers” referring to Russian regions with large Muslim populations including Tatarstan on the Volga River.
In November 2010, three Islamists were killed in Tatarstan in an armed clash with police that was unprecedented in the region.
Russia's National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said it suspected the attacks were related to what it called the mufti's work "countering the spread of religious radicalism" in the region.
Faizov, 49, has mounted a crackdown on extremists among the Muslim clergy of the republic of four million inhabitants.
He has said the main threat comes from Salafists and Wahhabis, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Yakupov headed the education department of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan at the time of his death, but until recently was Faizov's first deputy.
In May, the Kazan Week website listed Yakupov as Tatarstan's second most influential Muslim, calling him the “strategist behind Faizov's policy of rooting out religious extremism.”
Around half of Tatarstan's population is Muslim, according to the region's website.
Tatarstan is situated in the center of the Russian Federation on the East-European Plain at the confluence of the two greatest rivers -- the Volga and the Kama.
Since the early days of Islam, individual Muslims and delegations visited the region of Volga-Bulgaria, today's Tatarstan.
By the year 922, Islam had spread in the region and had been adopted as an official religion.
At the beginning of the 13th century, Volga-Bulgaria was captured by the Mongols and forcibly included into the Golden Horde.
By the beginning of the 15th century, the Golden Horde, which by then was a Muslim state, had broken down into several states, the strongest of which was Kazan Khanate.In 1552, Kazan fell to the invading troops of Ivan the Terrible and Islam was persecuted until the end of the 18th century.
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