A Russian Orthodox Church court has expelled a coronavirus-denying cleric from the priesthood after he seized control of a convent.
Father Sergiy – who calls himself Nikolai Romanov, after Russia’s last tsar – took over Sredneuralsk Convent, near Yekaterinburg in the Urals, on 16 June. He posted armed guards there.
The Yekaterinburg Church court found he had broken monastic rules.
Fr Sergiy has condemned the closure of churches in the coronavirus lockdown.
He called the Covid-19 crisis “a pseudo-pandemic” and cursed those who ordered that church services be stopped on health grounds.
There have been complaints of child abuse at the convent under Fr Sergiy’s leadership, and the Church court called for a thorough investigation of the allegations by the Russian authorities. The Church is also carrying out its own investigation.
BBC Russian has interviewed several witnesses who stayed at the convent between 2001 and 2020, and who described physical and psychological violence towards children as routine there.
The former residents said children were slapped or beaten for minor misdemeanours. Punishment was meted out for example if a girl took off her headscarf while hauling a sack of potatoes early in the morning, or if a child ran through the woods into town to get some chocolate.
Some of the nuns considered administering beatings to be as routine as tending the horses or working in the refectory, they alleged.
Fr Sergiy has stated that church authorities “will have to storm the monastery” if they want him to leave.
The controversial cleric was barred from preaching in April. He refused to attend the court sessions.
Fr Sergiy helped found the Sredneuralsk Convent in the early 2000s, and hundreds of supporters have flocked there over the years to hear his sermons.
Russian authorities shut churches to worshippers on 13 April amid the ongoing pandemic, and only reopened them last month.
Who is Father Sergiy?
A former policeman, Fr Sergiy spent 13 years in a prison colony for murder – though his supporters deny this is the case. He was released in the late 1990s.
Legally, the priest has changed his name to Nikolai Romanov, in honour of Tsar Nicholas II. The former emperor and his family were thought to have been buried outside Yekaterinburg after their murders in 1918, near the Sredneuralsk site, and Fr Sergiy is seen as the figurehead of the shadowy “tsar worshipper” movement within the Church.
Fr Sergiy has made numerous controversial claims in the past, including suggesting the Antichrist would soon rise in Russia as a counterpart to President Vladimir Putin. He has criticised laws against domestic violence and anti-Semitic sermons.
He has also ministered to several Russian sports stars and politicians.