A rogue Russian priest who denies the existence of Covid-19 has seized a convent in the Urals region and announced he will only be removed by force.
Father Sergei Romanov stormed the Sredneuralsk convent this week, after being banished by church leaders in April for protesting the closure of churches due to the coronavirus epidemic, which he called a “pseudo-pandemic”.
Romanov is a leader of an Orthodox religious cult of “tsar worshippers” and has legally changed his last name to that of Russia’s last imperial dynasty. He helped found the Sredneuralsk convent in the early 2000s not far from the site where the Bolsheviks buried the tsar and his family in 1918 and tried to dissolve them in acid.
A former police officer, Romanov served 13 years in a prison colony for murder before joining the clergy and building a following among firebrand Orthodox believers centred at the Sredneuralsk convent, as well as other sites near Yekaterinburg, where the royal family was executed in 1917.
The fundamentalist group has prominent followers among politicians and sport figures and launched vehement protests against the 2017 film Matilda, which depicted an affair between tsar Nicholas II and ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. There were several arson attacks targeted against the film’s director and a man drove his car into the facade of a cinema.
Romanov’s raid was preceded by an ecclesiastical court hearing on Monday for violating public health orders and publicly cursing other priests who closed their churches due to coronavirus.
In a statement, the diocese said that Romanov had “read a pre-prepared text that does not relate to the essence of the charges against him [and then] hastily left the session of the diocesan church court.” A day later he took over the Sredneuralsk convent.
“I will not leave the house of the mother of God,” said Romanov, referring to the convent, during the religious court. “My heart is calm, my conscience does not reproach me. They, that is the clergy, Metropolitan Kirill, will have to take the monastery by storm.”
The diocese has called for calm and rescheduled his next court hearing to 23 June. “We call for prayers for [Father Sergei] to regain his sense, so that he may use the time given to him until the next session of the ecclesiastical court for correction and repentance,” the diocese said in a statement.
The Yekaterinburg diocese said in a statement Wednesday that Father Sergei’s preaching was still subject to the decision of an ecclesiastical court. During its first session this week, Father Sergei accused Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill of betraying the faith.
“Church sacraments will be invalid and graceless should Father Sergei (Romanov) perform them in a state of being banned from religious rites,” the diocese’s statement said.
The diocese noted that Father Sergei continues to defy orders to perform ascetic prayers in a neighboring male monastery. Mother Superior Varvara and other abbesses voluntarily left the Sredneuralsk monastery “to avoid unnecessary infighting,” it added.
The diocese gave Father Sergei until the next ecclesiastical court date on June 26 to “rectify and repent” the situation.
“I’m not going anywhere… they’ll have to chase me out with police and the National Guard,” Father Sergei had said earlier Wednesday.
The Orenburg Cossack Army has meanwhile denied reports that its official members have been posted around the monastery’s perimeter to guard the site.
“The media reports of Cossacks supporting Father Sergei (Romanov) are disinformation,” it wrote on its social media page.
Father Sergei is known as the former confessor of several public figures including Russian lawmaker and former Crimean prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya. Poklonskaya denied that he is her current confessor and declined to comment on the incident further.