French and Russians in Battle Over
Ownership of Russian Orthodox Cathedral

St. Nicholas' Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Nice, France

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Worshippers in the French city of Nice took on the Russian state on Monday in a court battle over the ownership of the biggest Russian Orthodox cathedral outside the mother country.

The onion-domed cathedral of St Nicholas was built for Russians many of them aristocrats - who holidayed or settled on the French Riviera on land first purchased by Alexander II in 1865. It was completed in 1912 five years before the Bolshevik Revolution.

The church's parish council argues that Tsar Nicholas II paid for the building work with his own money. But the Russian state claims he used imperial funds belonging to the mother country.

Antoine Chatin, the parishioners' lawyer, said that Alexander II had first purchased the land to build a memorial to his oldest son and heir, Nicholas Alexandrovitch, who died there aged 21 of meningitis, and that the act of acquisition expressly mentioned the tsar's "personal desire" to buy it. The names of three tsars are written in the land registry, he said.

Alain Condino, a lawyer representing the Russian state, argued that the contract signed in 1865 contained the phrase "in the name of the emperor of all Russias" and that the land was bought with funds from the ministry of the imperial court. Mr Condino said an edict by Nicholas II dated 1908 stipulated the "effective owner" was the cabinet of the tsar, a state body.

Mr Condino said the parish council wanted to keep control of the church "for financial reasons", as the entrance fee is 3 (2.70). The cathedral is a listed building in France and contains precious works including 300 icons.

The parishioners' lawyer said that by claiming ownership, the Russian state hoped to bring the cathedral under the control of the patriarchate of Moscow, and thus under the influence of the Kremlin. The parish council has since 1931 been affiliated to the rival patriarchate of Constantinople.

The case continues.

The Telegraph
2 November, 2009