(AP) A renegade Russian Orthodox bishop defied a church order barring him from leading services Sunday and rejected a demand that he repent, the Interfax news agency reported.
Bishop Diomid’s defiance would set the stage for a potential confrontation in the tightly hierarchical Russian Orthodox Church.
Diomid has made waves by assailing the church for its support of government policies and its contacts with other faiths — essentially saying the deeply conservative institution is too liberal and too worldly.
Following a decision at the Council of Bishops, the church said Saturday that Diomid was barred from serving. It summoned him to Moscow from his diocese on the Chukotka Peninsula, in extreme northeastern Russia across the Bering Straight from Alaska, and demanded he “immediately repent.”
But Interfax quoted Diomid’s nephew, Alexander Nesterov, as saying that Diomid held a service Sunday in the capital of the Chukotka region, Anadyr, and told parishioners he would not repent because he does not believe he is guilty.
Diomid said he had made his position clear to the head of the church, Patriarch Alexy II, the report said.
In February 2007, the 47-year old bishop issued a statement in which he criticized the Church for its approval of the Kremlin’s “anti-people policies” and condemned its ecumenical contacts with Catholics, Jews and Muslims.
He also urged Russians to refrain from using identification cards and mobile phones.
Earlier this week, Diomid’s supporters rallied in Moscow calling for the resignation of Patriarch Alexy II and clashed with activists of a pro-Kremlin youth group that condemned the cleric. They also beat up several journalists with icons and banners.
A Russian Orthodox Church spokesman, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, played down the report of Diomid’s defiance, saying he could not confirm it. He said Diomid still has time to repent, but will be permanently defrocked unless he does so before a Holy Synod that will likely be held next month.
Chaplin would not say whether the church would seek to prevent Diomid from leading services or take any other action against him before the synod.
Church and state are separated under Russia’s post-Soviet Constitution, but Alexy II has claimed a leading role for the church in setting moral guidelines for society. Its growing prominence has caused concerns among minority faiths.
The church has experienced a major resurgence after the 1991 Soviet collapse ended decades of state atheism. The Moscow Patriarchate counts about two-thirds of Russia’s population of 142 million as members, and controls branches in other former Soviet republics.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking Sunday at a ceremony marking the 1,020th anniversary of the adoption of Orthodox Christianity by the precursor of the Russian state, signaled support for the church’s moves to thwart Diomid.
Medvedev, who attended the ceremony at Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral with his wife, Svetlana, said the Council of Bishops had “affirmed the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church in all its fullness and placed a barrier against efforts to divide it,” the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
Medvedev also suggested that he opposes the withdrawal of the church that Diomid advocates — and that Russia’s dominant faith should bring the country closer to the West rather than underlining differences.
Like relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, ties between Russia and the West have been troubled by disputes in recent years.
The adoption of Christianity a millennium ago helped integrate Russia into “more progressive European and world processes” and formed a basis for “the common moral, humanistic ideals we have in common with Europe,” RIA-Novosti quoted Medvedev, who succeeded Vladimir Putin in May, as saying.