Outcry in Russia after priest and his family die in possible arson

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dpa German Press Agency
Published: Monday December 4, 2006

Moscow- Russian prosecutors opened a murder investigation Monday into the death of an Orthodox priest and his three children and wife after they perished in a fire in a village north of Moscow. Andrei Nikolayev, 31, his wife, and their three children, aged 11, 7 and 5, were killed when their home was gutted by fire early Saturday in Pryamukhino, 240 kilometres outside the Russian capital.

While law enforcement authorities have said they have not yet ruled out the fire was an accident, media as well as church sources pointed a finger at arson.

The religious website Orthodoxy and Peace reported arsonists blocked the door to the family's home with a steel pipe to prevent the family from escaping. The home's windows had been barred by Nikolayev himself after a recent arson attempt.

Russia's Interior Ministry on Monday said it had formed and deployed an investigative squad to the village.

"It is assumed that Nikolayev, his wife Oksana and their young children, David, Anna and Anastasiya, were in the home during the fire," a statement from prosecutors said. "The remains of the family members have been sent for forensic analysis."

Villagers in the poverty-stricken town had stolen religious icons from Nikolayev's church, and the priest had taken to carrying a gun, church officials said.

Media reported the town had also seen many cases of logs and shutters stolen from homes, later to be sold in exchange for alcohol.

Nikolayev, church officials said, had attempted to fight against alcoholism and theft.

"It's known how exactly the village priesthood is entrusted with the important mission to breath new life into a Russian countryside that is burnt out and destroyed almost to its beginnings," Mikhail Prokopenko, a spokesman for the Orthodox Church's Moscow Patriarchy, told Interfax.

The newspaper Izvestiya in October wrote that there was a "real threat to the life of Father Andrei and his family."

The case appeared Monday to have the potential to become a catalyst for shining light on the condition of many of Russia's villages.

In contrast to cosmopolitan Moscow, aglow with petrodollars and chic boutiques, provincial towns are underpopulated amid the low birthrates and alcohol-influenced short lifespan of post-Soviet Russia.

Anatoly Volgin, a Tver region church official, told Izvestiya that 22 parishes in the region of approximately 1.4 million people had been robbed last year.

Hundreds have died across the country in recent months from drinking homemade alcohol, which often consists of little more than watered-down cologne or insect repellent.

Russian authorities have used the deaths to argue for creation of a state-owned monopoly on vodka.

Boris Gryzlov, speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament and an advocate of the monopoly, told Interfax Monday that "the premature death of people who should be moral guides in our society and of children is an indicator of the spiritual unhealth of the society."

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency