RUSSIAN Orthodox Christians in Nice have vowed to resist the attempted takeover of their properties by the Russian government, as part of moves to extend the Moscow Patriarchate’s outreach across Western Europe.
“The Russian Federation is demanding that the court order our expulsion — if necessary, with police help,” the vice-president of the French city’s Russian Orthodox Cultural Association (ACOR), Alexis Obolensky, told the daily paper Le Figaro.
“This is part of an aggressive strategy by the Russian state to appropriate, by any means, churches built outside Russia before the Bolshevik revolution.”
The retired professor was reacting to a Russian government lawsuit asserting claims to ACOR’s remaining properties, seven years after gaining control of St Nicholas Cathedral, the largest Orthodox place of worship in Western Europe.
Meanwhile, the main Russian Orthodox parish of Nice, St Nicholas and St Alexander, founded in the mid-19th century, said that it would also fight a takeover.
“Since the 1860s, worship services at our church and cemetery have never been interrupted,” the parish said in a social-media message. “The Russian Federation wasn’t satisfied with registering property rights to our cathedral, but has now also declared itself owner of our remaining historic properties and lands.”
In 2013, the Court of Cassation in Nice confirmed Russian ownership of the cathedral, since renovated at a cost of €20 million, ruling that ACOR’s rights to use the building, constructed in 1912, had expired.
Claims to the remaining assets filed in 2014 by Russia’s ambassador are, however, being resisted by ACOR and Archbishop Jean de Charioupolis, who is head of the independent Paris-based archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe.
The Moscow Patriarchate has created or reclaimed hundreds of parishes abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ostensibly to serve new Russian minorities, mostly in Western Europe and the United States.
A second Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris, Holy Trinity, close to the Eiffel Tower, costing €100 million, was dedicated in 2016 by Patriarch Kirill. Russian-funded cathedrals and major basilicas are planned in cities from Madrid to Nicosia.
The independent archdiocese in Western Europe, founded by Russian exiles in 1917, is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and includes parishes and clergy in France, Belgium, the UK, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden.
In September 2019, its assembly voted to transfer to the Moscow Patriarchate, but without the required two-thirds majority. Although some parishes have now made the transfer, others are resisting the move, which is widely seen as assisting a Kremlin-backed effort to promote the Moscow Patriarchate against the perceived decadence of Western Christianity and liberal democracy.
The 300,000-strong diocese of Sourozh, covering the UK, belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate’s newly formed Exarchate for Western Europe, but has faced similar divisions between those favouring and opposing closer links with Russia.
Speaking last week, a lawyer for the Russian government, Andrea Pinna, said that he expected the Orthodox property dispute in Nice to be settled by a court ruling next February, and contested the right of ACOR to claim ownership of buildings that pre-date the revolution.
This was contested by ACOR’s vice-president, Alexis Obolensky, however, who told the French daily Le Monde that descendants of Russian émigrés were now struggling in many countries to retain buildings that they had supported and worshipped in for decades.
ACOR’s treasurer, Tatiana Chirinsky Abolin, who is 73, also pledged to resist a Russian government repossession order. “I’ve seen my parents and grandparents take care of these churches, and now they show up and say they’re theirs,” Ms Abolin told Le Figaro.
“This is our parish, and everything is celebrated here: the Sunday eucharistic liturgy, marriages, and baptisms. It’s a vital interest for us, and we don’t want Russia changing everything, including our priests.”