KAZAKHSTAN: 'Unregistered Groups by Definition have no Followers'.

by Aleksandr Schipkov, Keston News Service, 9 March 2001

`It's not like Moscow here: we can't do anything without the bishop's blessing,' Keston News Service was told on 6 February by Vladimir Ivanov, head of the department for relations with religious associations at the city administration in the former capital Almaty. He was referring to the emergence in Kazakhstan of Orthodox groups opposed to Archbishop Aleksi (Kutepov) of Astana and Almaty, the senior hierarch of the Moscow Patriarchate in the country. One group represents `liberal' priests while the other is `conservative'. Keston has learnt that the Kazakh authorities have denied registration to parishes of both groups that wish to function outside the framework of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

In 1991, Kazakhstan was divided into three Russian Orthodox dioceses: Almaty and Semipalatinsk, headed by Archbishop Aleksi; Uralsk and Guryev (now Atyrau), headed by Bishop Antoni Moskalenko; and Chimkent and Akmola, headed by Bishop Yelevferi Kozarez. In 1995 Archbishop Aleksi became head of the Orthodox inter-diocesan commission of Kazakhstan and represents the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church to the authorities. The two other bishops are subordinate to Archbishop Aleksi, whose diocese now includes the new capital Astana (formerly Akmola).

At a meeting of clergy of the Almaty diocese last June, the existence of both liberal and conservative Orthodox opposition movements in Kazakhstan was discussed. Three priests - Serafim Kenisarin, Yevgeni Melnik and Vasili Teleutov - had suggested forming a commission to introduce Kazakhs to Orthodoxy by means of services in Russian (services are currently in Old Church Slavonic). They were accused of having links with the Moscow priest Georgi Kochetkov and had their ministry suspended. With the support of Pentecostals in Almaty, the suspended priests have formed Vostok (East), a `Christian group of clergy and laypersons' which aims to modernise Orthodox missionary work.

Also suspended at the same meeting was deacon Aleksandr Lisikov, an opponent of Kenisarin, Melnik and Teleutov, who belongs to a movement of `zealots', conservative critics of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. Lisikov accused Archbishop Aleksi of bribe-taking and `the heresy of ecumenism', and demanded that the Russian Orthodox Church should leave the World Council of Churches immediately.

Both groups have followers in the country and lobbyists in Russia. The first group was supported by Father Kochetkov, who until last summer was unaware of the existence in Almaty of priests who held similar views. Lisikov had the backing of Konstantin Dushenov, editor of the newspaper Rus pravoslavnaya (Orthodox Rus) and leader of the `zealots', who suspect the Russian Orthodox hierarchy of being `pro-Catholic'.

Lisikov (who declined to speak to Keston on advice from his spiritual father) wants the parishes that support him to be members of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, while Kenisarin is lobbying for independent `reformed' Orthodox parishes. `Unregistered groups by definition have no followers,' Keston was told by Ivanov, whom the rebel priests describe as the defender of Archbishop Aleksi's interests.

Orthodoxy is seen as a unifying force among the Russian-speaking population, especially in northern Kazakhstan close to the border with Russia, and the Kazakh authorities appear to be unhappy at the emergence of both rival Orthodox groups. They fear the conservatives, as they appear to have support from Cossack groups, while they also dislike the liberals, as they fear their attempts to conduct missionary work among Kazakhs might exacerbate racial tensions. Ninel Fokina, the head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Keston on 6 February that she believes Archbishop Aleksi is trying to convince President Nursultan Nazarbayev that the Russian Orthodox Church, like the Spiritual Administration of Muslims, is a trustworthy partner of the state. Vladimir Ivanov stressed that the department for relations with religious organisations that he heads supports contacts only `with structures', not with `isolated individuals'.

Father Serafim Kenisarin told Keston on 7 February that the Orthodox opposition in Kazakhstan has become a `religious minority' that is in no position to resist simultaneous pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kazakh authorities. `It's time to ask the anti-monopoly committee to start an investigation into the work of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan,' he joked. (END)