In a bizarre mix of farce and tragedy, a Russian newspaper report on the arrest of a supposed Orthodox priest in Chechnya on suspicion of illegal arms trading appears to have prevented a group of elderly ethnic Russians from fleeing the region to Moscow, church officials said.
Mikhail Vasilyev, a young, energetic Orthodox priest who works in the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for contacts with the armed forces, has visited Chechnya four times this year and has worked hard to establish his credibility with military officials and the Kremlin-backed government of Akhmad Kadyrov in Chechnya.
But Mr. Vasilyev said he was not the same “Father Mikhail” arrested in the Chechen capital, Grozny, for trying to sell a case of machine-gun cartridges, as the Izvestia newspaper reported in November.
Following the arrest of the mysterious man and the report of the incident in Izvestia, local authorities in Grozny banned some 20 ethnic Russians from boarding a plane to Moscow, Orthodox church officials said. The Orthodox church had been helping ethnic Russians to flee predominantly Muslim Chechnya, where Russian forces have been fighting Chechen separatists on and off since 1994.
The arrest of the mysterious man and the newspaper report cast a shadow over the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church in Chechnya.