Russian priest who led Navalny memorial services is demoted

<span>Flowers, candles and photos of Alexei Navalny left in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin after news of his death in February. </span><span>Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Flowers, candles and photos of Alexei Navalny left in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin after news of his death in February. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

A Russian priest who presided over a memorial for the opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been suspended from leading services and ordered to serve three years of “penance”, as persecution of people associated with Navalny has continued even after his death.

Dmitry Safronov had read several memorial services, called panikhida in Russian, at Navalny’s grave and led a service last month to mark 40 days since his death at a remote penal colony above the Arctic Circle.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Moscow diocese of the Russian Orthodox church said Safronov would be demoted to psalm reader, forbidden from wearing a cross and sent to another Moscow-region church where he would serve a three-year “penance.”

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At the end of that period a decision would be made regarding whether he could be formally defrocked “depending on feedback from his place of service”, the document said.

No formal reason was given for the punishment. Safronov could not immediately be reached for comment.

“In the absence of official information, the ban can be linked only with the memorial service that it is said Father Dmitry served for Alexei Navalny,” wrote Ioann Burdin, a priest who was fined and then defrocked after criticising the war in Ukraine.

In a post on social media, Yulia Navalnaya, the late opposition leader’s wife, confirmed that Safronov had conducted a memorial service at his graveside and called for his supporters to give donations to Safronov’s family. “I am very grateful to him,” she wrote. “Let’s help him and his family.”

Another priest who has spoken out against the Russian war in Ukraine was also punished in the church decree. Several Russian priests have been punished with fines or demotion after signing an open letter against the war in 2022. In several cases they were informed upon by members of their own congregations.

Russia has continued to persecute supporters of Navalny. Hundreds were arrested at impromptu vigils in cities across Russia in the days after his death.

Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Navalny’s, was targeted in a hammer attack near his home in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he lives in exile. Polish authorities have arrested three people in relation to the attack.

Russia has charged two journalists who covered Navalny’s trials with extremism, which carries a jail term of up to six years in prison.

The pair, Antonina Favorskaya and Olga Komleva, were detained last month. Favorskaya published footage of Navalny at a trial hearing in mid-February that was the last video of the opposition leader before his death. She was charged for her work with Navalny’s FBK anti-corruption foundation, which was labelled an extremist organisation by the Russian government in 2021.