January 19th 2021 | Massimo Introvigne | Bitter Winter

For the first time, a dissident Orthodox cleric is being prosecuted as a “cult (sekta) leader” in Russia. Archimandrite Artemy, rector of the church of Saint Peter and Paul in the village of Sovetka, in the Rostov Oblast, is being prosecuted for holding illegal worship services. He is also accused of proselyting outside the fold of the members of his religious association, a crime under the anti-proselytization statute, part of the so-called Yarovaya laws.

In late December, Father Artemy was fined by a judge of the No. 2 Neklinovsky judicial district of Rostov Oblast and asked to pay 5,000 rubles, and admonished that worse will come in case of repeated offenses. On January 13, what appears to be an orchestrated campaign against Father Artemy as a “cult leader” started in the local media.

Father Artemy is a member of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC, in Russian Российская православная автономная церковь, РПАЦ), which is duly registered in the Russian Federation. His story dates back to the reconciliation process, after the fall of the Soviet Union, between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), i.e., the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), which was established in the 1920s by Russian anti-Communist expatriates who did not accept the ROC’s subordination to the Soviet government.

When the ROCOR and the ROC started conversations that eventually led to their mutual canonical recognition in 2007, a minority of ROCOR believers claimed that no communion was possible with the ROC until the latter had purged itself of those of its bishops and priests who had worked as Soviet spies, which was not happening. They also wanted to keep the anti-ecumenical and arch-conservative theological orientation of a part of the old ROCOR. Eventually, they separated from the ROCOR and founded the ROAC.

Although critical of the ROC, the ROAC was registered in Russia and in other post-Soviet republics. It currently maintains some 60 congregations.

In the past, properties of the ROAC were confiscated in Russia and transferred to the ROC. However, the official reason was that these properties belonged to the Russian government rather than to the local Orthodox congregations, rather than an alleged “non-Orthodox” or “cultic” nature of the ROAC.

The Rostov Oblast incident, for the first time, sees a secular court of law determine that the ROAC is a “non-canonical” Orthodox jurisdiction, and the corresponding media campaign labels it a “cult,” with the consequence that its proselyting activities, and even its worship meetings, are declared illegal and prosecuted.