Moscow (CNN)A renegade cleric is occupying a convent outside of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains after falling out with the Russian Orthodox Church because of his coronavirus-denying sermons.
Renegade priest occupies Russian convent
Father Sergii Romanov, a cleric of the Yekaterinburg diocese and former policeman who was banned from preaching by the church leadership, took over the Sredneuralsk convent on Tuesday. The superior and four nuns from the complex left the premises, according to the diocese. Armed guards who support Sergii have been seen circling the premises according to local media reports.
"I will not leave," he said in a video address posted on June 13. A portrait of Stalin was in his backdrop.
"You have the experience — you will have to kick us out from the monastery with police and national guard," he said. "I have a casket, I have a cross, I have nails — I'm awaiting your decision."
On Wednesday, pilgrims started flocking to the convent, local media reported, with an estimated 200 people attending services there, according to URA.RU outlet, which live-streamed the event.
Police also entered the convent, but did not report any violations, according to a statement from the local branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The new superior, appointed by the diocese to run the convent, has not yet been able to gain entry.
In late April, Sergii was banned from preaching by the Orthodox church because of his controversial sermons in which he said coronavirus does not exist, "cursed" those who had closed churches due to the outbreak and urged Russians to disobey the patriarch's order not to gather during Orthodox Easter.
The cleric was then isolated in a small monastery in Sverdlovsk but resurfaced in May, and stepped up his anti-coronavirus rhetoric in a series of videos posted online.
In one of them, he said the authorities wanted to put Russians into a "Satan's electronic camp," referring to tools like electronic passes used to enforce isolation in Russia. He also inferred that the masses will be controlled via "deadly electronic chips" and artificial intelligence under the pretext of vaccination.
Local Orthodox leadership said his sermons "do not reflect the views of the Yekaterinburg diocese," stripped him of the right to wear a cross and initiated proceedings in an ecclesiastical court to determine his future. Local police also launched an investigation after deeming that his sermons contained false information and instigated hatred.
The Sredneuralsk convent covers a large tract of land with its own farm, school and cemetery, said Ilya Shumanov, Deputy director of Transparency International in Russia. He compared it to the Vatican and said it enjoys relative autonomy, which could allow the priest to occupy it indefinitely.
Sergii is known for his ultra-conservative views and has made various controversial claims in the past.
Last year, he suggested the Antichrist would soon emerge in Russia as a counterpart to President Vladimir Putin, and criticized laws against domestic violence. He also harshly criticized Yekaterinburg Orthodox leadership when it backed out of a project to build a cathedral due to massive backlash from the city's residents.
Local media reported he spent time in prison in the 1990's for robbery and murder, a claim his supporters deny. Sergii is also hailed as the leader of the "tsar worshippers" sect, after legally changing his name to Nikolai Romanov in honor of the last tsar of Russia Nicolas II, who was murdered along with the royal family outside of Yekaterinburg in 1918.