MOSCOW — A gunman opened fire on worshipers at a Russian Orthodox cathedral on Sakhalin Island off Russia’s Pacific coast, killing a nun and a parishioner in an attack that rattled nerves across the vast Russian federation.
The gunman’s motives were unknown, and investigators at the scene said the suspect, who was in custody, would be subjected to a mental health evaluation, Rossiya-24 television said in its report from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island republic’s capital.
Sakhalin Island is more than 4,000 miles from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russia is hosting the Winter Olympic Games amid intense security fears. Sochi is just west of the restive Caucasus Mountains region where Islamic separatists have been fighting Russian repression of their religion and culture and have vowed to disrupt the prestigious sporting event to embarrass the Kremlin.
The attack at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk’s Cathedral of the Resurrection appeared unrelated to the Caucasus militants’ threats, but a statement from the Russian Investigative Committee said the suspect’s motives were still unknown. The 24-year-old man was employed as an armed security guard at the church, RIA Novosti reported.
Investigation of a Friday night hijacking attempt aboard a Turkish airliner flying from Kharkov, Ukraine, to Istanbul also appeared to be unrelated to the Olympics even though the suspect demanded to be flown to Sochi. The perpetrator was said by Turkish authorities to be motivated by the recent strife between Ukrainians over whether to forge closer ties with the European Union or continue the debt-ridden nation’s traditional economic integration with Russia.
News of the cathedral shooting drew extensive coverage in the atmosphere of intense vigilance that prevails across Russia during the Olympics that run through Feb. 23.
The nun, Lyudmila Pryashnikova, and an unidentified male parishioner were killed when they attempted to subdue the gunman after he began firing at random at icons and at worshipers who were leaving a just-concluded service, Russia Today reported. Six others were injured. Stunned worshipers told journalists that the attack unleashed panic inside the church.
“The wounded have been taken to a hospital. Their wounds are to the legs. Their lives are not in danger,” Sakhalin Archbishop Tikhon told Russian television reporters outside the gates of the white-and-blue cathedral with gilded onion domes and belltower.
In Moscow, the head of the Orthodox Church said the victims would be honored for their attempts to protect the church and its followers.
“They tried to prevent that person from defiling our sacred place. They died as heroes, as soldiers on the front line,” Patriarch Kirill said in a statement carried by Rossiya-24 television.