ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The top church official of Alaska’s oldest Christian faith was put on mandatory leave of absence Friday and ordered to leave the state.

The Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska has been in turmoil for weeks as priests and laity complained to national leaders about their Bishop, Nikolai Soraich.

They accused him of intimidation, abuse, disrespect and forcing priests and their parishioners to adhere to outmoded 19th-century religious rituals.

Among their specific complaints: The bishop barred baptism of children without Orthodox names and created fear of the diocese leadership in remote Native villages.

Bishop Nikolai argues that he has worked hard to bring discipline to a loosely run diocese and has followed the Scriptures.

On Wednesday, he defied a request from the Holy Synod, the church’s governing body, to take a voluntary leave of absence while it investigates the complaints, and said efforts to force him out violate church law.

There are no formal charges against him, and there has been no hearing to prove or disprove the claims, he said Wednesday in a letter to the head of the Orthodox Church in America.

Bishop Nikolai’s refusal to step aside prompted the national church leader, Metropolitan Herman, to make the leave of absence mandatory on Friday. In a letter published on the national church’s Web site, Metropolitan Herman ordered Bishop Nikolai to leave the Alaska diocese – the entire state.

A failure to comply will be considered “willful disobedience,” wrote Metropolitan Herman. The church will appoint a committee to investigate the complaints, he said.

The metropolitan appointed the Rev. Eugene Vansuch of Easton, Penn., to run the Alaska diocese while the bishop is on forced leave.

It is unclear if the bishop plans to comply with the metropolitan’s order. He did not return phone calls Friday evening.

Some Russian Orthodox priests and parishioners who complained about Bishop Nikolai to national church leaders said they felt grateful but heavy-hearted after hearing the news Friday afternoon.

“I’m very unhappy that this had to happen to a leader in the Orthodox church,” said the Rev. Peter Askoar, an archpriest in Russian Mission.

Askoar was one of those who wrote to the Holy Synod, saying, “We have been lied to, forced to, belittled, kicked out of Church … forbidden to speak our (Yupik) language in his presence. We are at the present completely confused rather than unified in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

“This is really unprecedented,” said Richard Dauenhauer, a lay reader in Juneau’s Russian Orthodox parish.

“I’ve never heard of this happening before,” he said.

“I’m very glad that (the Holy Synod) took the complaints seriously. It’s good, because the alternative would be disastrous,” Dauenhauer said.

He predicted that removal of the bishop will allow Alaska priests to be more responsive to their parishioners. The bishop’s directives forced them to hold ultra-long church services that fewer and fewer people would attend, he said.

In his letter, Bishop Nikolai said church officials are violating canonical law by acting on an accusation before it is proven true or false in front of the Holy Synod.

“The accuser’s character must be examined. All these procedures must take place within the context of a meeting of the synod to which the accused bishop belongs,” Bishop Nikolai said in the letter, posted on the Orthodox church’s Web site.

In previous interviews with the Anchorage Daily News, the bishop has said he was surprised by the Alaska priests’ accusations and that some of their complaints – including no baptisms for children without Orthodox names – were “not new” to the church.

Some of his supporters agree, saying the bishop has done good things in Alaska, such as making study for the priesthood at Kodiak’s Saint Herman’s Theological Seminary free. Previously, students racked up huge debts, difficult to repay if they served in the Bush.

“I beg you, confront me with my sin and I will repent. But confront me with “bad press’ or an abrasive “leadership style,’ and the most I can do is become a slick politician or politically correct bureaucrat … and that I refuse to do,” the bishop wrote.

Metropolitan Herman responded on Friday with the order to leave Alaska. He said that Bishop Nikolai knows “very well that the complaints about your conduct within the diocese are not about your leadership style, bad press or anything that may be published on the Internet,” and that the complaints had been brought by “reputable priests and laity.”

Many of the complaints have been published on the Internet.

The Holy Synod is “only interested in determining whether those complaining about you are credible and truthful,” wrote the Metropolitan. “There are no formal charges and our preliminary investigation into the character of the complainants should not be viewed as taking the place of any statutory or canonical procedures, should they ever be required.”

He said he was disappointed that the bishop is “casting this process in an adversarial light” and refusing to take a voluntary leave.

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