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Russia wrests back ownership of Orthodox churches in France

The Kremlin has been accused of an “aggressive” campaign to wrest back ownership of a second Russian Orthodox church in…

By admin , in Europe , at November 19, 2020 Tags: ,

The Kremlin has been accused of an “aggressive” campaign to wrest back ownership of a second Russian Orthodox church in Nice.

Worshippers at Saint-Nicolas-and-Saint-Alexandra’s in the southern French city fear they will be turned out for a second time after the Russian Federation asked a French court on Wednesday to declare it the legal owner of the church.

Locals descended from émigrés who fled the 1917 Russian Revolution say they have already lost the use of the local Saint-Nicolas cathedral after a judge declared nine years ago it belonged to Russia.

Saint-Nicolas-and-Alexandra church is believed to be the first Russian Orthodox religious edifice built in western Europe.

In 2014, the Russian Federation demanded a French court expel the local Orthodox Russian Cultural Association (Acor) from the church. Acor described it as an “aggressive strategy by the Russian state aimed at taking possession, by any means, of Orthodox churches built outside Russia before the Bolshevik revolution”.

In 2010, a Nice court gave Acor ownership of the Saint-Nicolas cathedral, built in 1912, and the largest Orthodox place of worship in western Europe. This decision was overturned the following year by the appeal court, which declared that even if the Russian state had not used the building for almost a century, there was no time limit for it to claim legal ownership.

Alexis Obolensky, a retired professor whose family arrived in France from Russia in 1921, and Acor vice-president, said that after losing the cathedral the parish had moved to the Saint-Nicolas-and-Saint-Alexandra church, opened in 1859, which it now also faced losing.

As well as the building, the Russians also obtained a court order to recuperate from the Saint-Nicolas-and-Saint-Alexandra church a bloodied white linen shirt and a blue woollen uniform jacket with gold-thread embroidery said to have belonged to Tsar Alexander II. The tsar was wearing the clothing when he was assassinated in St Petersburg in 1881.

The imperial family had been visiting the city on the Côte d’Azur since the 1850s, making it a popular resort with Russian nobility. Acor and the Russian Federation are also in dispute over ownership of the city’s “Russian cemetery”.

In 2014, Moscow paid for a €20m two-year renovation of the historically listed cathedral.

Obolensky told Le Monde the descendants of Russian émigrés were struggling all over the world – including in Argentina and South Korea – to retain control of religious edifices.

Not all members of the Nice Russian Orthodox community support Acor, however. Pierre de Fermor, who founded a rival organisation called Friends of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, believes Moscow is right to reclaim local heritage,” de Fermor told Eurasianet.

“I think it’s perfectly logical that the cathedral should return to Russia since she built it in the first place. Communism is over, Russia is back,” he maintains.

Last year, Andrei Eliseev, the archpriest of the now Moscow-run Saint Nicolas Cathedral, said the row had nothing to do with religion. He said: “To me it’s largely a dispute about property. Though much can be explained by the psychological trauma related to Russia’s history on the part of the émigrés.

“Many of these people lost their property during the revolution, that’s why they’re so adamant about the estate here. But we’re talking about fourth-generation exiles; it’s as if the trauma is genetic.”