MOSCOW A bishop who has accused Russian Orthodox Church leaders of forming an unholy alliance with the Kremlin will be defrocked unless he repents, clerics ruled on Friday.
The church said Bishop Diomid, who has also spoken out against ecumenical ties with other Christian faiths, had to be disciplined because he was trying to create a split.
Many Russian Orthodox believers are sensitive about any sign the church is compromising its independence from the Kremlin, especially since under Soviet rule senior clerics were recruited by the Communist authorities as collaborators.
Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, does not publicly criticize the Kremlin and has in the past invited Vladimir Putin, the former president who is now prime minister, to join him at the altar during religious services.
"Bishop Diomid is expelled from holy orders," the church said in a statement. "With his appeals and statements, he is cultivating the spirit of schism in the church and destroying its unity."
However, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, said the church's decision would only come into force if Diomid refused to repent.
If there is no repentance, he will be stripped of the right to identify himself as a priest or conduct religious services, Father Chaplin said.
Diomid is bishop of Chukotka, a sparsely populated region of Russia across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of London's Chelsea soccer club, is governor of the region.
In an appeal he issued last year, Bishop Diomid attacked as heretical the practice of holding joint prayer with representatives of other Christian faiths, and building closer relations with other religions.
He also wrote that Russian Orthodox leaders were guilty of "spiritual compromise, subordinating church power to secular ... power, at the expense of God-given freedom".
Diomid attacked what he described as the church's "silent consent, instead of denouncing the anti-human policies of the current authorities which are leading to the break-up of the country".
He has found support among a small group of Russian Orthodox clerics and worshippers, as well as among nationalist and ultra-conservative political groups.
Speaking to senior clerics earlier this week, Alexiy II said there was space for diverging views inside the church but it should not endanger church unity.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)