June 4, 1997, Reuter

Russian Bishop Rebel Among Rebels Against Orthodoxy

By Adam Tanner

SUZDAL, Russia, June 4 (Reuter) - From a garret above a picturesque church in the centre of the ancient country town of Suzdal, Bishop Valentin commands a rebel empire, vigorously challenging the authority of the Moscow-based Orthodox Church.

``The Moscow Patriarchate is not involved in the rebirth of Russia and Orthodoxy. They just want to open up businesses, sell alcohol, trade oil, and deal in other items,'' said Valentin, who has a greying beard and wears a long black robe.

With about 100 churches from Siberia to southern Russia following his lead, 58-year-old Valentin has mounted the most formidable challenge inside Russia to the Moscow-based Orthodox Church since the collapse of communism opened the way for mass spiritual revival.

Suzdal, a 1,000-year-old town of 12,000 lying 200 km (125 miles) northeast of Moscow, is dotted with dozens of churches and walled monasteries and seems like the perfect place for a grassroots challenge to the ecclesiastical establishment.

Goats and chickens wander along side lanes, many locals grow food on little plots, and the chimes of church bells -- in cathedrals dating back to the 13th century when the principality of Suzdal rivalled Moscow -- ring throughout the day.

To the official Orthodox Church, Valentin is using this bucolic setting to mount a heretical challenge. Especially bitter about Valentin's crusade is rival Bishop Yevlogy, the Moscow church's bishop for Suzdal and neighbouring Vladimir, who views Valentin as having stolen his title.

``For eight years he has poisoned his church,'' he said. ``Valentin was nothing and no one in the church, and has given himself higher powers and title.

``Instead of serving his church he wants to judge it, which is completely wrong and a violation of church canons,'' he said.

MORAL CRUSADE OR STRUGGLE FOR POWER?

A visitor to one of Valentin's two-and-a-half-hour services graced by an angelic choir notices few, if any, differences from other rites that stretch back 1,000 years to the conversion of the Russians to eastern Orthodox Christianity.

In fact, little divides the churches in terms of theology other than their views on a few 20th century saints. But they are bitterly divided on the Moscow Patriarchy's recent legacy.

The Moscow Patriarchate acknowledges that some of its officials collaborated with the KGB secret police under Soviet rule and have been involved in unsavoury business deals in recent years.

But it says the whole church should not be condemned for the transgressions of a few.

``Yes, the church has its own business enterprises, and unfortunately church representatives can and have allowed some mistakes in these matters, either from their incompetence or bad intentions,'' said Patriarchate official Father Viktor Petluchenko. ``But you can't blame the entire church for this.''

Valentin says the Moscow Patriarchate must come clean about its sins and repent, and sees himself as the catalyst whose pressure might bring about the confession.

``We still have the energy to fight these atheists and make the church more useful and bring about repentence from the church in Moscow,'' he said.

Some church officials and observers say, however, that Valentin's struggle is not for moral purity but power and influence over burgeoning millions of the faithful returning to the church after seven decades of official communist oppression.

``It does give the impression that it is a struggle for power, but I am not fighting for power,'' he said. ``I am fighting for true love, friendship and the right attitude toward God.''

REBELLED AGAINST THE REBELS

When local folk look at the man leading their prayers, they see only a man who has faithfully served the community for decades.

"My mother came to him and now I come," said 59-year-old Nina Lavrentiyeva. "What difference does it make to us what church he represents? He is an exceptional man."

But behind Valentin is a history of struggle against the church elders.

He first rebelled in 1990 by joining the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, a New York-based group of exiles from the 1917 Bolshevik revolution which said the Moscow church morally compromised itself by collaborating with the Soviet state.

Valentin's success in getting other congregations to join the Church Abroad posed a serious challenge to the Patriarchate, which was damaged by documents showing church leaders, including Patriarch Alexiy II, collaborated with the KGB.

But then Valentin became a rebel among rebels and parted ways with the Church Abroad to set up his own movement, the Real Russian Orthodox Church. The move dealt a blow to the Church Abroad's efforts to re-establish a foothold in Russia.

"Valentin of Suzdal is going down his own path of little happiness, as he is a man of personal ambition," said Nikolai Artyomov, secretary of the Church Abroad's German-based bishopric, which wants closer ties with the Moscow Patriarchate.

But Alexander Sergeyev, an official with another Orthodox splinter group sympathetic to Valentin, said he is leading a much-needed struggle to put pressure on the Moscow church.

"Today, the Church Abroad is conducting a serious debate about the possibility of dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate," he said. "This has worried believers who cannot understand why a church actively opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate for 70 years can all of a sudden talk about unification."

Petluchenko says the Moscow Patriarchate is seeking reconciliation with Valentin and Church Abroad, but they will not initiate the talks.

"For now, let them return to us for talks at least," he said. "But they are not contacting us to discuss the situation, yet they think we should go to them, which is unlikely."

Valentin's struggle recalls the mediaeval rivalry between the principalities of Suzdal and Moscow. But if he fails he may follow rather in the tradition of exiles who down the ages have taken refuge in Suzdal against the central powers, including the rejected wives of czars Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.

Copyright 1997 By Reuters