The death of a village priest, his wife and three small children in a mysterious fire has highlighted hardships that Russian Orthodox clergy face in isolated locations outside Moscow's bubble of wealth and power ‚Äì writes Sophia Kishkovsky from Moscow for Ecumenical News International.
Most reports have cited villagers angered by Fr Andrei Nikolayev's battle against alcoholism, rural Russia's scourge, or thieves seeking to rifle his church's few treasures, as primary suspects in the fire that engulfed his home.
It occurred in a typical, poverty-stricken village in the Tver region, several hours drive from Moscow. His church in Pryamukhino was once part of 19th century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin's family estate.
Russia's chief fire inspector has been saying that arson was the most likely cause. Police said they were studying all possibilities, including a faulty heater and even murder-suicide, a version suggested by the Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid and quickly rejected by the local diocese, which implored the media to exercise restraint.
But the Russian church was clearly shocked by the tragedy. News of it spread through Orthodox blogs before being reported by mainstream media, where it became a top story.
"If it was indeed arson, this bears witness to the moral barbarity of those who committed it," Fr Mikhail Prokopenko, a spokesperson for the Moscow Patriarchate told the Itar-Tass news agency. "Namely village clergymen are at the forefront of the battle to restore the Russian village." Before his death, the priest had asked for protection from thieves. His family had already lost its last home to fire.
Serving in the village, Nikolayev said, was "like being at war." He said he kept a gun but would never be able to shoot at a person. "Much more serious measures should be taken by the powers that be and the government," Arkady Nebolsin, an architectural preservationist, told ENI at a recent fundraiser for an organisation called "Village Church", which helps restore places of worship.
Abandoned or poorly guarded rural churches are highly vulnerable, he added. Thieves target not only icons and liturgical vessels, but also such details as woodwork.
In October 2006, Nikolayev appeared on ‚ÄòStreet of Your Fate‚Äô, a television show about the heroism of regular people. "I'm afraid for my family, but all is God's will," he said on the programme. "I want to carry my cross to the end. I must not give up. People have started coming to us and I feel responsible for them."
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]