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Nalchik's Orthodox Community in Crisis

The Russian Orthodox Church in Kabardino-Balkaria has all the hallmarks of a city under siege
By Yuri Akbashev

Father Leonid Akhidov had a hard act to follow.

His predecessor, Father Ioann Ostapchuk, governed the 19 Orthodox churches in Kabardino-Balkaria for more than 40 years.

During this time, he transformed the Nalchik parish from a provincial backwater into a thriving religious community. And he enjoyed the devotion and respect of congregations across the republic.

When Akhidov came to Kabardino-Balkaria in 1997 as Ostapchuk's deputy, he made no secret of his disapproval for the old regime. Soon the two priests had entered into an open conflict which split the local Christian community in two.

When Ostapchuk died last year, his supporters refused to accept Akhidov's authority. And when Akhidov failed to hold a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of his predecessor's death, the outraged worshippers made an official complaint to Gedeon, Bishop of Stavropol and Bakinsky.

But Father Leonid has stood his ground, relying firmly on his own spiritual credentials. Born in North Ossetia, he comes from a family of Orthodox priests. His son, Father Manuil, was murdered by Ingush partisans in his Vladikavkaz church during the 1992 Ingush-Ossetian conflict.

Akhidov's youngest daughter, Larisa, is married to the deacon of the Nalchik church, Father Vasily, who is a Balkar from the mountain village of Kichimalka.

Larisa has been appointed head of the Sunday school and put in charge of the Nalchik choir. This move sparked a storm of protest from Father Ioann's lobby, who pointed out that it took Larisa seven years to complete her training at the Orthodox choir school instead of the usual three and claimed that she was almost tone-deaf.

Father Leonid promptly banned the choir from singing any of the chants favoured by Father Ioann and dismissed any members of the priesthood who continued to support the old regime.

To add insult to injury, say his detractors, Father Leonid Akhidov has dramatically cut the salaries paid to local priests and increased the cost of church services.

But Father Leonid, a quiet and pensive man, pays little attention to the criticism. He points out that money raised by the church is being spent on a new seminary in Stavropol whilst extra funds are needed to maintain the Troitsky Cathedral in the Kabardinian village of Sovkhoznoe. Here Father Leonid hopes to open a monastery which already boasts three monks.

Furthermore, he says, the main church in Nalchik is now open every day, instead of just Saturdays and Sundays.

Church leaders in the North Caucasus expect the Nalchik schism to be high on the agenda during this month's meeting between General Victor Kazantsev and Bishop Gedeon. Not least because the Russian authorities are eager to see the Christian church flourish in a region which is seen as a breeding ground for Islamic militant groups.

Yuri Akbashev is a regular IWPR contributor