Kyrgyz Police Probe Fire At Baptist Church Amid Hate Crime Fears

KAJI-SAI, Kyrgyzstan -- Police in a northern Kyrgyz village have launched an investigation into a fire at a Baptist church that some believe was an arson attack.

Stalbek Usubakunov, a spokesman for the local police in the Ton district, told RFE/RL on January 4 that there were no casualties in the fire that occurred the previous night in the village of Kaji-Sai.

He declined to give further details because of the ongoing investigation.

The chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Evangelical Christian Churches' Association, Aleksandr Shumilin, told RFE/RL he has heard that Molotov cocktails were thrown into the church's windows, sparking the blaze.

In recent years, the attitude to Kyrgyz Christian converts has worsened across the mainly Muslim Central Asian country and several villages in Kyrgyzstan have refused to allow deceased Christian converts to be buried in local cemeteries. The issue led to a decision to set up an Evangelical Christian cemetery in Kaji-Sai, where the Baptist Church operates.

The village governor, Pamir Kutuev, told RFE/RL he would warn against jumping to a conclusion that the fire was a hate-motivated act.

"The church has been operating here since the collapse of the Soviet Union [in 1991]." Kutuev said. "There was never an arson attack on the church. There is no religious discord here. Because there were no witnesses, the investigation is proceeding slowly."

In November, a Kyrgyz man, who converted to Christianity from Islam, was buried in the Evangelical Christian cemetery in Kaji-Sai after residents of his native village of Barskoon refused to allow him to be laid to rest in the local Muslim cemetery.