2.21.08"Everywhere He goes the people scatter,
the clergy and their wives and children are trembling with fear."
Citing Fear and Abuse, Alaskan Clergy Cry Out Against +Nikolai
After a rare public interview given to the Kodiak Daily Mirror, published February 16th, in which +Nikolai, the Bishop of Alaska, dismissed all criticisms against his Chancellor and himself, Ms. Mina Jacobs, his secretary, sought to do the same in a letter addressed to fellow Metropolitan Council members. (Read the Bishop's interview here.) (Read Mina Jacobs' letter here.) These attempts, public and private, to counter mounting concerns about the Bishop - concerns about a new federal investigation into Paul Sidebottom's charges of sexual harassment and retaliatory dismissal, concerns about the recent tonsuring of convicted sex offender Terenty Dushkin, concerns about the retaliatory suspension of Protodeacon George Nelson and concerns about the growing denial of sacraments to parishioners - are now being overshadowed by new allegations of abuse against the Bishop. this time made by his own clergy.
In recent days increasing numbers of Alaskan native clergy have begun writing letters of appeal to the Synod of Bishops of the OCA requesting the Synod's help in freeing their villages and parishes from the regime of fear, personal intimidation and cultural oppression they assert +Nikolai has established throughout the OCA's oldest diocese.
A Plea from Russian Mission
In the first of these letters to appear in public, the Very Rev. Peter Askoar of Russian Mission, the parish of St. Jacob Netsvetov, writes:
"To The Most Blessed; The Most Reverends; The Right Reverends, Archpastors, Dividers of The Truth, Fathers and Protectors of the Church of Jesus Christ: The Holy Synod:
'Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean', but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean'.' Then the disciples came to him and asked, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?'
He replied, 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.'
Peter said, 'Explain the parable to us.'
'Are you still so dull?' Jesus asked them. 'Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean'. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean'. (Matthew 10:15-20)'
I am V. Rev. Peter Askoar, Rector of the Elevation Of The Cross Of Our Lord Church here in the Diocese of Alaska. For the last 28 years I have been serving this good Orthodox Church in America and praise God that I have been found worthy of the title of Archpriest. It is humbling to be called that and first of all I would like to ask forgiveness for my forwardness and the lack of, in my opinion, respect for you. I dare to quote scripture to my master and dividers of The Truth. For this, and any part of that, may you forgive me. Especially for even daring to put myself in an higher level to complain of what God has given me to suffer.
We are peaceful, non-confronting (if there be such word, English is my second language), happy to have suffered for the Truth, loving and simple. I have been taught by my elders never to be disrespectful to them, always to draw knowledge from them, even before doing any task that involves putting our lives on the line. We do this day in and day out, this is why probably, I have aged so much in my God-given life span of only sixty years.
We were taught that we should be in Church even if we have to crawl over to the place of Worship, and (now) to be told that we should stay home because we cannot stand for very long, to me, seems just not right. To be told that we should not speak our native language inÊfront of Vladyka is extremely sick. I'm from the schooling that did not allow us to speak our native tongue and to be visited with this is more horrible than when I was hit, every time for speaking, especially from a man I once consider my very own Father.
I was sure at the beginning that he (Bishop Nikolai) would truly guide us to the Heavenly Kingdom. It hurts so very hard to speak this way of such an awesome responsibility of you my Archpastors. Holy Father Jacob (Netsvetov) would not stand for this because as you know he is the 'Enlightener and Baptiser of The Native People'. As long as it was just attacking us as clergy it was bearable - but now even the Faithful are denied Communion, the very Life of Our Church with a sin of disobedience. Of course its terrible to disobey, but use it as a weapon? I could probably understand one blatantly refusing to follow the Church. Before all this, we used to be able to help with financial responsibilities - but now we can't even do that, without approval and exact kind of job.
Last year, during the pilgrimage with the Icon from Valaam a strange comment was made by him (Bishop Nikolai), several people, including several clergy were there and I quote as closely as I can: "Matushka Rebecca, on our way down to Mountian Village we should push you overboard. I will perform a beautiful funeral service." My wife said something like, "Thank you, that would be good."
Calling the House of God unfit for Worshipping is truly not what an Hierarch would say. Yes, we should build with what best things we have for the Glory Of God, but with many on fixed income and not having jobs, well, maybe this is the best we can do. When told this he'd say: "You have to suffer, sacrifice for the Lord" which is absolutely true. But not once has this Bishop worn that same vestment twice or ever in a year. What is that telling our people: you sacrifice but I don't have to? We are not completely ignorant as some would think that we are. But blind obedience is not on our life.
You all must realize that we do NOT hate this man, we just want to be able to Worship the way we were taught, to please God and not man.
Financial involvement has declined, many parishoners refusing to be associated with one who has demanded that attention (be paid) of the man (Bishop Nikolai) rather than of God.
A fellow Clergy told me that when he inquired about why Mr. Sidebottom and Mr. Ardinger were fired, he had been completely ignored - not even a mention during Diocesan Assembly or any other time. And he said it was in writing. I guess it's because he was Native and didn't deserve a reply.
We have been lied to, forced to, belittled, kicked out of Church, thrown objects at, forbidden to speak our language in his (Bishop Nikolai) presence. We are at the present completely confused rather than unified in Jesus Christ Our Lord. A sense of hatred (is) beginning to creep into our lives. This is foreign, even to Native.
It is with heavy heart and heart-felt tears I submit this to you, The Holy Synod. Please pray diligently that the Good Lord will forgive me for daring to confront you, for I have no theological language , not learned in scripture, but I pass on what Christ teaches to His Apostles and (I) Love Christ and his people. I, an unworthy Priest, accept whatever is in store for me, for I am unworthy to suffer for Him.
So make it swift, I expect retaliation and more abuse. Amen.
Bishop Nikolai was not informed about this, because I truly am terrified of him, but.... I can think of no other avenue for approaching you or him, being we have not been taught proper protocol of this matter. So if I have overstepped my God-given Freedom forgive me.
Please, once again keep me in your Holy Prayer and asking your Archpastoral Blessing, I remain,
Your Humble Servant,
And unworthy to be called a Priest
Archpriest Peter Askoar
SS Cyrus and John The WonderWorkers (OS)
And Another From the Yukon
A second letter, now public, from the Very Rev. Victor Nick, of Mountain Village, Alaska, echoes Fr. Askoar. Fr. Nick writes:
"...Ever since I opened my eyes before the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Holy Church, I remember running (with the other children) along the side of Archbishop Gregory Afonsky when he comes into the village as the people sings 'Dostoino' (It is Truly Meet). I also remember children flocking around Archbishop Gregory and later on Bishop Innocent, as their parents watched with happiness. I remember village elders gathering together when the bishop arrives. How Archbishop Gregory looked upon the elderly with much respect, as we where raised to respect them. These elderly helped keep the faith in our villages, and we dared not to see their faces on eye level, because we truly respected and loved them with much affection. I remember everyone cheerfully felt a good purpose because they were treated as important from our beloved Archbishop Gregory, and even though controversies surrounded the departed Bishop Innocent, Bishop of Anchorage, the people still felt important. We had Yukon and Kuskokwim Conferences and they were big deals for the villages.
Bishop Nikolai Soriach, who is now the Ruling Bishop of Alaskan Diocese came to us. The state of our diocese is now in this condition: St. Innocent's Cathedral is practically empty, not like before. My fellow Priests and Deacons and their families, the children and their mothers, the people in the villages who have experiences of Bishop Nikolai, and elders are afraid of Him now. Every where He goes the people scatter, the clergy and their wives and children are in trembling with fear.
In the parish of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Dillingham, people affectionately remember the old priest that labored some 50 or 60 years ago. His name was Fr. Basil Sifsof. The community of Dillingham always remembered him dearly. Even priests liked to recall with (the) same affection Fr. Basil. During the potluck when Fr. Basil's name was mentioned, Bishop Nikolai mentioned that Fr. Basil's lifestyle was not so good. Not only were Fr. Basil's children deeply hurt, but the community of Dillingham was also hurt. I don't think they recovered from it. The value of their past was broken and embittered by what Bishop Nikolai said."
Fr. Nick continues:
"I know of my fellow priest who is assigned to an isolated village parish. He nearly lost his leg by amputation because he barely got to the hospital on time. That same family is located in a village where there is no clinic. That same priest and matushka asked if they can be reassigned to a village or place where there is a clinic so they can bring their sickly child, so something doesn't happened to the child. They are assigned to the village where there is barely enough children to continue school education funding. Bishop Nikolai said them them, that the child's education is more important then the child's health...."
He goes on:
"In the past I wrote to the Holy Synod as a Deacon to save my skin. Right know, from hearing about the sufferings from my fellow Alaskan Clergy, and my fellow Alaskan People, I write with much concern. When a small country is over run by a longer country, the people have no choice but to stay on the front line of their soil to defend for their children, and loved ones, their countryman. I have no choice but to write this letter. Many are wounded emotionally and spiritually here in Alaskan Diocese. It is Bishop Nikolai who is causing the harm."
Fr. Nick finishes his letter with a plea to the Synod of Bishops:
"For the sake of St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent, and St. Yakov (Jacob), Enlightener of the Native people of Alaska, Holy Martyr Juvenaly and His Companion and Martyr, Peter the Aleut, who have built the faith here in Alaska with the help of God, I submit this letter to Your Beatitude, The Most Reverends, and the Right Reverends. I, too, am willing to face the consequences for 'this dare' to take action. I am not worthy to suffer like the Holy Martyr Juvenaly and His Companion, Holy Martyr Peter the Aleut. I know how those mothers with their children and others who were told to 'get out of the church' for the sake of being 'right and appropriate' suffered; and the elders who were humiliated in front of those who respected them in their village. Perhaps I am not worthy to suffer like them as well...."
And concludes with the chilling confession:
"I am very much afraid of Bishop Nikolai, because I truly believe He has an iron hand that can crush me.
I do not send a copy of this to Him."
And Another From Anchorage
In an email to the Chancellor of the OCA, Fr. Alexander Garklavs, dated February 17th, Fr. Michael Oleksa, noted Alaskan Orthodox author, the diocese's senior active priest, and current pastor of St. Alexis Toth Mission in southwest Anchorage, explained the extraordinary nature of these letters emerging from native clergy, and warned that more were on their way to Syosset:
"Dear Father Alexander,
Since two clergy of our diocese have already submitted appeals to the Holy Synod, I need to stand in solidarity with them. ...
..... I ask that you share (the attached essay) now with the Holy Synod in anticipation of many more personal letters arriving from Alaska clergy and laity in the next few days and over the next several weeks.
It requires real courage to speak out in these difficult circumstances. I am aware that the bishop's personal assistant has drafted a letter defending him, based on what he has told her. Her letter may as well have been written by His Grace Nikolai himself or his chancellor. Mina is a wonderful, kind, loving, trusting person, but she has no direct knowledge of the situation outside Anchorage.
I know these men and their families and parishes. I know how painful it was for them to write what they have written. I must stand in solidarity with these heroes.
May God help and guide us all!"
In his attached essay, entitled 'Alaska Today', Fr. Oleksa begs the Synod of Bishops to assist his "bullied and threatened, verbally abused and insulted, suspended and deposed into obedience" brethren. He writes that Alaska is presently suffering under a "fear more oppressive than what I knew under Soviet occupation during the Cold War in Czechoslovakia. For most of my brothers," Fr. Oleksa concludes,
"this is a new and terrifying condition. For me it is too reminiscent to accept."
- Mark Stokoe
Fr. Michael Oleksa's "Alaska Today"