The Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska is in turmoil. Priests from around the state are seeking removal of the top official here, Bishop Nikolai Soraich. They say he is hurting the church and ruling by intimidation.
"The clergy and probably a large percentage of the laity in the church have reached the point where they believe they can no longer serve with or under Bishop Nikolai Soraich," said the Rev. Michael Oleksa, archpriest at St. Alexis in Anchorage and the best-known Orthodox pastor in Alaska.
"It's the accumulation of years now of what the clergy regretfully but sincerely believe is a matter of personal and collective abuse," he said.
In one example, priests say that the bishop's edicts prevent children without Orthodox Christian names from baptism in the church. They say he's made hurtful comments about Native culture, church buildings and ceremony. His second in command told one group of priests not to speak Yup'ik in front of the bishop. They say they are afraid of him.
Bishop Nikolai, who has served in Alaska nearly seven years and is one of just nine diocesan bishops in North America, said Thursday he is dumbfounded by the criticism and has called a meeting next week in Anchorage to air the concerns. Some priests said they won't go.
"There are people out there who obviously have an issue with everything that I do," the bishop said Thursday. He never told people not to speak Yup'ik, he said.
"I even sent out letters telling them I wanted them to use their Native language," the bishop said.
Calls to the Orthodox Church in America headquarters in Syosset, N.Y., weren't returned Thursday. But there's no doubt the issues are on the radar of national church officials.
"The OCA Chancery is receiving mail and e-mail from clergy of the Diocese of Alaska. There are indications that serious issues exist that may need to be addressed," the Orthodox Church in America said in a release posted Saturday night on the church Web site.
The church's top official in the United States, Metropolitan Herman, has been in touch with Nikolai and the Holy Synod of Bishops, the church's governing body, the release said.
Nikolai said he has no intention of stepping down voluntarily.
"Absolutely not," he said. He said he doesn't know why the priests are speaking out against him but said he has tried to restore order in a diocese where things had been loosely run.
Much of the controversy is playing out on Web sites run by church watchdogs, including one called Orthodox Christians for Accountability.
Discord has been building for years, Alaska priests said.
"In a nutshell, we were so ... free to express ourselves until I'd say about six years ago when Nikolai came in, then pastoral theological teaching just kind of went down the drain," said archpriest Peter Askoar, of Elevation of the Cross of our Lord Church in Russian Mission and a priest for 28 years.
In one of the bishop's early visits to Russian Mission, where just about everyone is Orthodox, he criticized their new church building, made with love by local crews but quirky, with visible supports holding up a sagging roof, Askoar said. The bishop said it wasn't fit for worship, according to Askoar.
The priest was too shocked to respond. He said he understands they need to give whatever they have to the Lord "but this was the best we had to offer."
Priests are especially troubled by an edict Bishop Nikolai gave at a diocesan assembly last year that says babies cannot be baptized unless their legal, given name is Orthodox.
In the past, children had two names, their street name and their church name, Oleksa and Askoar said.
But the bishop told the assembly "if the parents do not give the child an Orthodox Christian name, do not baptist them. Period," Askoar said.
Now, Askoar said, children in his village are waiting to be baptized while their parents work on getting their birth certificates changed by the state.
Bishop Nikolai said the name requirement for baptisms is not a new rule.
In Juneau, the Rev. Michael Spainhoward of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church said that Bishop Nikolai has always treated him well, with kindness and generosity but he has seen the other side, too. Spainhoward has a closer connection to Bishop Nikolai than most because he worked under him as a church deacon in Las Vegas years ago.
"I served with him, and I personally have never been chastised or belittled or humiliated. I have not experienced any of the things they have, but I know it to be possible because I have witnessed it with others," Spainhoward said. He wouldn't go into specifics.
The bishop should resign, he said.
"To come and impose upon and to dismiss all criticism, to dismiss culture, to dismiss all of this, hurts the people, hurts the message of the gospel," Spainhoward said.
Some of the discord arises from a May 2007 situation in Kodiak involving allegations against the second-ranking church official in Alaska, Chancellor Archimandrite Isidore, of drunken sexual misconduct. The accuser, Paul Sidebottom, a teacher at St. Herman's seminary, has filed a sexual harassment complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to The Associated Press, the complaint alleges he was fired by the chancellor and bishop after complaining to Metropolitan Herman.
Bishop Nikolai said an investigation by the church's New York headquarters has already found the allegations unsubstantiated.
Sidebottom's position on Kodiak Island was slated for elimination for budget reasons and his release had nothing to do with the sexual harassment allegation, Bishop Nikolai said. He refused to release the investigative report, saying it was a personnel matter and the diocesan lawyer advised him not to make it public.
There's also the matter of a registered sex offender who was a reader within the church. Bishop Nikolai said he suspended the man after a news story revealed his role with the church. The man now is working at the Russian Orthodox Museum downtown.
Among the bishop's critics are a group of six priests and a deacon from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, who signed a letter to the Holy Synod published on ocanews.org.
"As it is now, we are concerned for the future of the church, the diocese and her faithful in Alaska," they said. "What will become of us if this does not end soon?"
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.
SIGNIFICANT DATES AND PEOPLE
1794 First Russian Orthodox monks in North America, including St. Herman, establish mission on Kodiak.
1820s New wave of missionaries, including St. Innocent, arrives in Aleutians to train Alaska Natives for priesthood.
St. Herman born 1755 near Moscow. One of eight monks who founded Russian Orthodox Church here. Defends Natives against abuse by Russian traders. Died 1837 Spruce Island. Elevated to sainthood 1970.