Ownership in court

Alexis Obolensky fears for the survival of his parish. The retired Russian lecturer and his cultural association are fighting in court to keep the famous Russian Orthodox cathedral of Saint Nicolas in Nice in the hands of the French community – and not Russia. Now the date for the next legal stage is fixed: In March the court of appeal will decide on the dispute.

In February 2010, a civil court in Nice awarded the land, buildings and interior of the church to the Russian state. Russia claims to be the legal successor of Tsar Nicholas II. who provided a plot of land for the construction in 1912. The sponsoring association, on the other hand, insists that the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church transferred the building and property to them in the 1920s after the Communists came to power.
"Our community has cherished this church for more than 80 years," says sexton Obolensky indignantly. Basilica is part of Russian migrant culture and "spiritually" much closer to France than Russia, they say.

The colorful structure in Nice is the largest Russian Orthodox church in Europe and one of the most visited monuments in the Mediterranean city. But behind the pretty facade, an ultimately Europe-wide conflict is raging between the Russian Orthodox Church abroad and in Russia. "The two were in sharp opposition for decades," Rudolf Prokschi, a Catholic theologian at Vienna University, tells the KNA. The emigrants had accused the church leadership, which was tolerated in Moscow, of having collaborated too much with the communists. "The "Church Abroad" took over all the former ecclesiastical possessions of Russia abroad," said the professor of Eastern Church history.

Parishioners chain themselves to their cathedra
Two years ago, however, there was official reconciliation between Russia and the Church Abroad, Prokschi said. Consequently, Russia saw itself confirmed in the provisional legal decision. The community in Nice, however, defends itself against the "takeover". Twice a Russian delegation arrived to evaluate the church and its riches. Each time, parishioners chained themselves to the entrance door and prevented entry. The community does not want to cooperate even with post-communist Russia.

"We have our own tradition," says Obolensky. Although there are only minor differences in the liturgy, "the spirit of our congregation is different," the sexton is convinced. It was fed by Russian emigrants who had consciously left their homeland. His own grandparents and parents had emigrated to France in 1921. The 62-year-old has presided over the association for ten years and spends many hours of his time trying to preserve the church. "This church belongs to no one," Obolensky says determinedly. His association also maintains and preserves the sanctuary only for the general public.

It seems to be about principle
In the side wings of the church are glass, richly decorated display cases with golden family coats of arms and richly decorated candlesticks or picture frames that the emigrated families donated to the church. For Obolensky a sign of the distance of the faithful to the Russian state. "They fled and then bequeathed their riches to the church. To give them back to Russia now would be scandalous," Obolensky said.

So far, the Russian state has not declared whether community life and the church itself should change at all under its leadership. Rather, it seems to be a matter of principle. "Since the fall of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church has been trying, together with Russian politics, to get back these church properties abroad," says also scientist Prokschi. Obolensky and his comrades-in-arms, however, will not accept a possible transfer of the church to Russia: They want to go all the way to the European Court of Justice for their basilica if necessary.

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