VLADIKAVKAZ - A Muslim scholar was shot dead Thursday, December 27, in the internal Russian republic of North Ossetia, to the shock of the Muslim community.
"This man died for his faith, North Ossetia's top Muslim official Khadzhimurat Gatsalov told the Interfax news agency.
I think it is linked to his work.
"Someone doesn't want this kind of Islam in North Ossetia, he said.
Deputy mufti Ibragim Dudarov was shot many times in the head at point blank range by gunmen near the regional capital Vladikavkaz.
He was shot at close range. Five shots were fired, Gatsalov said.
Local authorities have launched an investigation into the motives behind the imam's murder.
The new killing takes to seven the number of imams killed in attacks in Russia this year.
In August, prominent Sufi Muslim scholar Said Atsayev was killed in a suicide attack in North Caucasus Republic of Dagestan.
A month earlier, the mufti of Russia's largely-Muslim region of Tatarstan was injured and his deputy was killed in a rare attack on Muslim leaders in the oil-rich republic.
In April, a Russian Muslim activist was found dead with his throat slashed in Moscow.
Religious leaders described Dudarov's killers as enemies of Islam.
"Ibragim was a conflict-free man. He was chosen specifically and killed for his faith. Gatsalov said.
Only an enemy of Islam could have done this, to aggravate the situation in the region.
The imam's killing is likely to inflame tensions in the region.
Russia is struggling to extinguish an insurgency that stems from its two devastating wars against separatists in Chechnya, just east of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, and has been fuelled by chronic unemployment, police brutality and poverty.
Militants fighting for an Islamic state in the mountainous region have increasingly targeted Muslim leaders who are backed by the Russian authorities.
Two decades after a territorial dispute erupted into a brief war in 1992, there is also lingering tension between mostly Christian North Ossetia and mostly Muslim Ingushetia, but there was no indication the shooting was linked to that conflict.
On Thursday, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said police had killed three suspected militants in the Kabardino-Balkaria region on December 26, Reuters reported.
NAK identified one of those killed as Alim Lampezhev, who has been on Russia's federal wanted list since 2010.
The Russian Federation is home to some 23 million Muslims in the north of the Caucasus and southern republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.Islam is Russia's second-largest religion representing roughly 15 percent of its 145 million predominantly Orthodox population.