The head of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska and national church leaders, who want him to step down while they investigate charges against him, are locked in a standoff that is intruding on the church's holy season.
To serve in the bishop's place, the church's top national official, Metropolitan Herman, has appointed the Rev. Alexander Garklavs, chancellor of the New York-based Orthodox Church in America, to serve as interim administrator for Alaska. A Pennsylvania priest named last week asked to be released from the duty, citing a need to remain in his parish, according to Garklavs.
But in an open letter on Monday, Bishop Nikolai Soraich, head of the diocese, said Alaska priests should continue to recognize him in church services as their rightful bishop and confront him "directly and personally with your view of my shortcomings and offenses."
In recent weeks, a number of Alaska priests and parishioners have asked the national church to remove Bishop Soraich, accusing him of intimidation, insults and other abuses. The bishop said Orthodox priests and laity in Alaska should reject the national church's order unseating him: It doesn't comply with historical church canons or the Bible, he said.
Both critics and supporters of the bishop say the conflict is creating hardships for everyone involved, especially since the season of Lent -- the holiest time of the year -- has just begun.
Father Michael Oleksa, an archpriest in Anchorage, called the situation tragic. "It seems to me the direction the bishop is taking is a dead end. It can only provoke (the synod of bishops) ultimately to suspend him from his ministry," Oleksa said. "It's not good to cause this division ... it's unnecessary and painful."
But what's also painful is for the bishop to be ordered to leave Alaska after seven years of service and much hard work to build up the diocese, his supporters say.
"I'm frustrated with the national church, how they've handled this," said Mina Jacobs, a volunteer assistant for the bishop who also runs the Russian Orthodox museum downtown.
"Why don't they send somebody in here who cares and says, 'Let's find a way to discuss this?' Where is he supposed to go?" Jacobs said.
Garklavs says the national church does care about the diocese. "We would like very much for people to know that it's a difficult time but we hope that things will be resolved and will improve," he said Tuesday.
Garklavs expects to arrive in Alaska next week but does not know how local church leadership will respond to the bishop's refusal to leave, he said. His job is to address pastoral concerns, whereas discussions about the bishop's status will be between the Metropolitan and the other bishops, he said.
"Disagreements occur within families. ... We're in the midst of something like that as a church," Garklavs said.
He said national church leaders disagree with Bishop Soraich that the leave of absence is a punishment.
"Nothing is prejudged ... . An investigation (cannot) take place while Bishop Nikolai remains in the diocese," he said.
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