By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE (Reuters) - A young man dressed as "Father Frost" - the Russian equivalent of Father Christmas - was stabbed to death in Tajikistan on Monday in an attack police believe was motivated by religious hatred, two police sources said.
A crowd attacked 24-year-old Parviz Davlatbekov and stabbed him with a knife as he visited relatives in the early hours of Monday dressed as Father Frost, who by tradition brings Russian children presents at New Year. Russian cultural influence remains strong in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic.
"We have witness statements that say the crowd beat Parviz and stabbed him with a knife, shouting: 'You infidel!'," one of the sources told Reuters.
The second source said religious hatred was being investigated as the motive for the crime, which occurred in the capital Dushanbe.
Tajikistan is officially secular, although the vast majority of its 7.7 million people are Muslims. Authorities have cracked down on religious freedoms in the last few years and jailed dozens of people for membership of Islamist groups.
President Imomali Rakhmon has ordered students at foreign religious schools to return home and told his security services to tighten control over religious education and mosques in Tajikistan, which he says are often used to foment radicalism.
His critics say poverty and repression in the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics is pushing many young Tajiks toward radical Islamism. The country, where tens of thousands died in a civil war in the 1990s, shares a long border with Afghanistan.
Tokhir Normatov, chief of staff of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry, said the victim had died in hospital from a loss of blood, but made no comment on the motive for the attack.
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Kevin Liffey)