Rebel monk arrested for ‘inciting suicide’ after falling-out with Russian Orthodox Church

Riot police stormed a monastery in Russia’s Urals mountains in the middle of the night on Monday and detained a defrocked monk, capping a months-long stand-off between the Russian Orthodox Church and a controversial religious figure who was barred from service earlier this year.

A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered the arrest of Father Sergei Romanov and he is set to remain in custody until February 28 pending trial on charges of driving people to suicide, violating the right to freedom of conscience and fomenting unlawful actions.

He denies all three charges, his lawyer said, according to Interfax news agency.

The Investigative Committee, which handles probes into major crimes, accused him of calling on at least 10 nuns to commit suicide and sharing a video of the sermon online.

Sergei Morokov, the region’s ombudsman for children’s rights, told local website Znak.com that his office had sent a complaint to prosecutors after an employee saw a video of one of Father Romanov’s sermons that he claimed showed the priest “discussing suicide in the presence of children”.

Father Sergei was taken to a Moscow court on Tuesday afternoon

Credit: Tass via Getty Images/Tass via Getty Images

His supporters clashed with riot police on Monday night when they arrived at Sredneuralsk monastery outside the city of Yekaterinburg to detain him.

Some of the parishioners can be seen in a video cursing at the riot police, yelling: “Satan, go away!” as the officers pushed their way past.

The white-bearded former monk was eventually detained and taken in for questioning in the early hours on Tuesday before he was flown to Moscow, where he was formally arrested.

Several hundred of the priest’s supporters were reportedly still holed up at the convent on Tuesday, not allowing church representatives inside even as riot police sealed off the area.

Father Romanov has for years been running what his critics have described as a religious cult worshipping Russia’s last czar Nicholas II and his family, who were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

He has denied the allegation, saying instead that he leads a group of "true believers."

The Russian Orthodox Church is highly fragmented, and analysts say that senior clerics have largely lost control of fundamentalist priests such as Father Romanov, who has been able to run the monastery for years despite being accused of peddling hate speech.

He had previously been sentenced to 13 years in jail for murder and robbery but was released in the 1990s, the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

Father Sergei's supporters would not leave the Sredneuralsk monastery or let anyone in after the defrocked monk was arrested

Credit: Tass via Getty Images/Donat Sorokin

But it wasn’t until this year that he started to really draw the attention of the authorities.

As the coronavirus epidemic struck Russia, Father Romanov publicly urged believers to disobey lockdown restrictions.

Then in a sweeping expose this summer, the BBC Russian Service detailed how several children who have lived at the monastery had complained of beatings, intimidation and psychological abuse at the hands of the staff. He has denied the allegations.

Father Romanov was finally defrocked in July after a religious court punished him for disobeying church orders.

The Yekaterinburg Diocese said on Tuesday that it had “concerns about the spiritual and mental health of people on the premises of the seized monastery.”

But church watchers say Father Romanov crossed the line for the government when he openly defied coronavirus restrictions earlier this year and called on President Vladimir Putin to step down.

Sergei Chapnin, a religious scholar and former editor at the Church’s publishing house, described the unprecedented police raid as a “major defeat for Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church.”

“The authorities are sending a message to the Church: if you can’t handle those who criticise the state, we will deal with them ourselves,” he told a local TV channel.

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