ANCHORAGE - Priests in Alaska's Russian Orthodox Church have called for the removal of their top official in the state, Bishop Nikolai Soraich, claiming he has hurt the church and ruled 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.
"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 Alaska Native culture, church buildings and ceremony.
His second-in-command told a group of priests not to speak Yup'ik in front of the bishop and they say they are afraid of him.
Bishop Nikolai has served in Alaska nearly seven years and is one of just nine diocesan bishops in North America.
He said he is dumbfounded by the criticism and has called a meeting next week in Anchorage to air the concerns.
"There are people out there who obviously have an issue with everything that I do," he told the Anchorage Daily News. 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.
The Orthodox Church in America, with headquarters in Syosset, N.Y., has taken notice of the matter.
"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 OCA 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 does not know why the priests are speaking out against him, he said, but he has tried to restore order in a diocese where things had been loosely run.
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, a community of 329 on the Yukon River about 375 miles west of Anchorage, 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 was not 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, a street name and a church name, Oleksa and Askoar said. The bishop told the assembly "if the parents do not give the child an Orthodox Christian name, do not baptize them. Period," Askoar said.
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 that he has seen the bishop's other side. Spainhoward worked under Bishop Nikolai 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.
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.