French court denies Russia’s request for return of church and cemetery

Nice, France, March 2, 2021

The Church of Sts. Nicholas and Alexandra in Nice, France. Photo: Wikipedia The Church of Sts. Nicholas and Alexandra in Nice, France. Photo: Wikipedia     

The long and complicated legal battle over Russian Orthodox churches in Nice, France, continued late last month as a French court partially satisfied Russia’s demand for the transfer of certain plots of land, but refused to transfer the church and cemetery in question.

Plaintiff Alexei Obolensky expressed satisfaction that the court left the Church of Sts. Nicholas and Alexandra, the oldest Russian church in Western Europe, and Caucade Cemetery in the control of the ACOR-Nice (Russian Orthodox Parish Community in Nice) religious association, but also dismay that the same decision was not made for all the disputed objects, noting that the association pad the taxes and fees on them for many years, reports Novaya Gazeta.

The construction of the church was initiated by the dowager Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, and its consecration on December 31, 1859, was attended by Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, the daughter of Nicholas I, and Russian diplomats.

However, ACOR argues that since the October Revolution, neither the Soviet nor Russian authorities had anything to do with the church or the cemetery. Rather, it was cared for by the association with its own funds and subsidies from the French state.

Ecclesiastically, it came under the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1921, together with the other Russian churches in Western Europe. On November 9, 2019, following Constantinople’s unexpected dissolution of this Exarchate of Russian Churches in Western Europe, it was announced that the parish had transferred to the Romanian Orthodox Church, while the majority of the Exarchate parishes reunited with the Russian Orthodox Church.

ACOR is still considering whether to appeal the ruling. The Russian side is also considering appealing, Ekaterina Kopylova, assistant for legal affairs to the Russian Ambassador in France, told TASS.

The three plots of land given to the Russian Federation all previously belonged to it, Kopylova said.

The February decision was the result of ACOR suing the government of the Russian Federation and a Nice notary who earlier issued “corrective notarial acts” in favor of the Russian authorities, giving the Russian authorities rights over the church, the cemetery, and three plots of lands surrounding another church—St. Nicholas Cathedral in Nice (the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe), without a court decision.

The Cathedral of St. Nicholas, not to be confused with the Church of Sts. Nicholas and Alexandra involved in the latest ruling, was also previously managed by ACOR, but was transferred to Russian ownership in 2010, after several years of disputes, and in 2013, ACOR’s final appeal was rejected. ACOR contends that this became the pretext for Russia to “expropriate” the rest of the association’s property.

The next year, the French notary certified the acts in question, transferring the Church of Sts. Nicholas and Alexandra, Caucade Cemetery, and the three plots around the cathedral to the Russian Federation.

ACOR filed a lawsuit in 2015 contesting these rights afforded the Russian government. The trial was postponed several times until the first and only substantive hearing was held on November 19, 2020.

The rector of the St. Nicholas Cathedral, Archpriest André Eliseev, told Novaya Gazeta that the notary only “corrected unauthorized changes that were made to the documents on the cemetery and on the church.” Both properties are like apartments that the owner, the Russian Orthodox Church, has returned to after a long absence, he explained.

Last July, the cathedral was nominated or best architectural monument in France.

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