Alaska land grab cited in bishop’s fight with church

Author: Megan Holland
Date Published: 03/13/2008
Fran Durner / Anchorage Daily News:  Bishop Nikolai Soriach of the Russian Orthodox Church at a news conference at the Russian Orthodox Museum in Anchorage. Soriach called his dispute with church leaders
Fran Durner / Anchorage Daily News: Bishop Nikolai Soriach of the Russian Orthodox Church at a news conference at the Russian Orthodox Museum in Anchorage. Soriach called his dispute with church leaders "A big mistake."

ORTHODOX: National organization sold off property, aide claims.

The power struggle at the top of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska continued Wednesday with fresh accusations across the sparring leadership.

Bishop Nikolai Soraich, head of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, said he will not step down despite mounting pressure from national church leaders to do so and an assertion from their office that he is no longer the leader.

An aide to Soraich accused the national church of coveting diocesan land in Alaska, and said its leaders had long been trying to get rid of the bishop in order to take control of what little assets the Alaska branch has.

Speaking to the media at the church’s downtown Anchorage offices, Soraich, a man whose shock of white hair, long white beard and black robes give him a striking public presence, accused national church leaders of not following proper church procedures, saying no formal charges have been filed against him so they can’t require that he step down, even temporarily.

His second-in-command, Archimandrite Isidore, went further: The New York-based Orthodox Church in America is seizing on minor local problems to kick out a bishop they have long butted heads with, he said.

The land issue is central to the power struggle, Archimandrite Isidore said. Alaska land, owned by the church for more than a century, was slowly being sold off by the national organization until Soraich took over about seven years ago and stopped it, Archimandrite Isidore said. What’s left is about 1,000 acres in places including Anchorage, Kodiak, Sitka and Russian Mission.

The entire diocese budget is about $400,000 a year, Archimandrite Isidore said. The land generates about $100,000 in income annually. He did not know the total value of the property in the state, or how much it would be worth if sold.

Ever since Soraich took over and reclaimed title to the land, the national organization has been quibbling with him, Archimandrite Isidore said.

The consternation in the normally quiet rank and file of a church that has deep roots in Alaska history, especially in the Bush, started last spring with allegations against Archimandrite Isidore of sexually inappropriate, drunken behavior. Since then, rumors, accusations launched in letters and on Web sites, and internal bickering have marred the 25,000-member church, which has a significant number of Alaska Natives in its congregations.

Archimandrite Isidore sought treatment for his alcohol problem, and the accusation of sexual misconduct was subsequently found to be unsubstantiated by the national church.

Soraich’s critics accuse him of heavy-handed management of the church and disrespect for Native culture. The national church has asked him to step down while it investigates.

At the news conference, Soriach said the controversy has caused him personal pain. “I haven’t had much sleep,” he said.

He said he is working to bridge the internal divisions in his diocese by meeting with priests and members to talk about the problems.

“I’m not perfect,” he said. “I appear to be very intimidating, I think, from the standpoint of a lot of people. … And I’m very forceful.”

“I suppose all of those things are looked at as attributes that are not positive sometimes,” he said. He is actually “very loving,” he said.

He called the whole dispute with his superiors, “A big mistake. A big mistake.”

In New York, the man chosen to run the Alaska diocese while Soriach is investigated denied the land played any role in the national church’s actions.

“We’ve had some church problems and some internal problems that have unfortunately caused some issues, but no, we’re not necessarily hard-up for cash,” said Alexander Garklavs, chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America.

“That’s not the motive.”

Garklavs said there were enough concerns expressed in phone calls and e-mails from Alaskans that the church did not need formal charges in order to launch an investigation. Garklays said he plans to arrive in Alaska next week to take over the reins of the church.

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