By Linda Hayes, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent
DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Christians in Tajikistan celebrated Orthodox Christmas Saturday, January 7, amid concerns about Islamic extremism after a crowd killed a young man dressed as “Father Frost”, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus.
Police said 24-year-old economist Parviz Davlatbekov was attacked Monday, January 2, by some 30 people yelling “You infidel!” and stabbed with a knife in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
Davlatbekov had reportedly dressed up as Father Frost, who by tradition brings children presents at New Year, to visit relatives for a celebration. Officials said he died in the hospital of his injuries.
Three suspected murderers – third-years students of Tajik National University Sharif Davlatov, Farrukh Samiyev and Firus Nazrulloyev, were later detained, police added.
There is concern among Christians that the attackers may have been encouraged by hardline Islamists who oppose Santa Claus-like figures and other Christmas or New Year symbols. Christians point out that Santa Claus, or Father Frost, has nothing to do with the birth-of-Jesus Christmas story.
The Central Asian country’s spiritual leader, Saidmukarram Abdukodirzoda, said in December however that all customs such as decorating the “New Year tree”, a practise in former Soviet nations, as well as dancing and playing games “are alien to Tajik culture and contradict the laws of Islam”.
Authorities have denied the January 2 killing was religiously motivated. Interfax news agency quoted Tajik Interior Ministry spokesman Makhmadullo Asadulloyev as saying that “The young men who attacked [Davlatbekov] were intoxicated.”
Monday’s attack added to mounting religious tensions in the former Soviet republic, where most of its seven million plus population are Muslim.
Several churches have been declared illegal under a controversial restrictive Religion Law brought in 2010, which allows the government to impose stricter control over religious groups, in a nation that tolerates only the state-approved version of Islam.
Under the legislation all Christian and other “religious organisations” need to provide the national government with written confirmation of their existence from their local administration.
Christians say however that local officials “have been slow” at issuing confirmation documents or have “deliberately” refused to do so for groups that they did not like.
Officials have also imposed territorial restrictions on the activity of some non-Muslim groups, including Christian churches, during the re-registration process, according to Christians familiar with the procedures.
Autocratic President Imomali Rakhmon has defended his decision to sign the controversial legislation and other measures, saying it is the best way to prevent the growth of militancy.
Sharing a long and porous border with Afghanistan, the country has long been a target for extremists who have found fertile ground for recruitment among young, ill educated, unemployed men from the growing poor sections of Tajik society, analysts say.
The president has also placed strict curbs on young people wanting to study religion at home or abroad and critics say this has impacted also those with peaceful motives.
Tajik Christians suggest that with increasingly hostile attitudes towards them — and a government that focuses on in its own survival — there is little Christmas cheer these days.
(With additional reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos. Linda Hayes regularly covers faith and social issues impacting societies as well as foreign affairs and finance.)