Vienna, May 11 – Next week, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) will acknowledge the supremacy of the Moscow Patriarchate, an action with immense ideological consequences but equally one having an enormous impact on the ownership and control of numerous valuable properties outside of the Russian Federation.
Not surprisingly, most commentaries have focused on the end of the schism between the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR, the so-called “émigré church’ formed in the 1920s by those who had fled the Russian revolution and who refused to subordinate themselves to the Moscow Patriarchate which had been subordinated to the Soviet state.
Bringing the two churches together – or, more precisely, reabsorbing ROCOR into the body of the church under the Moscow Patriarchate – reflects the aging of ROCOR parishioners and the desire of many -- but far from all -- of its members, the Patriarchate itself, and the Kremlin to mark the emergence of a post-Soviet Russia.
But however that may be and whether the new union will play out as its authors in Moscow clearly hope, there is one issue that seems certain to remain a bone of contention for some time ahead. That concerns the control of property hitherto owned by the émigré church around the world.
At the doctrinal level, the Moscow Patriarchate believes that all church property belongs to it and can be disposed of as the patriarch himself dictates, but the émigré church has always believed that the ownership of churches and church property remains vested in individual congregations.
That difference, which has not yet been bridged at the level of practice however much the leaders of each side have wanted to declare otherwise, has some important consequences, at least among the still numerous émigré parishes existing in various Western countries.
In most Western legal systems, even a single member of a congregation can bring a suit in court challenging as a legally impermissible un-reimbursed taking of property that the transfer of control from an individual ROCOR parish to the Moscow Patriarchate in the minds of many clearly represents.
Not all such parishes are likely to bring such suits and not all of them will be successful, but at least some suits will be brought and be successful – and that could tie up the Moscow Patriarchate and its Kremlin backers for years and put them at odds not only with small émigré parishes but with the countries in which the later are located.
That possibility was very much on public view this week when a French court effectively found for the emigres by holding that the émigré Russian Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Nice is a French national monuments and cannot be transferred without that state’s permission (http://www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=723699).
In this particular case, the original suit was brought last November by the Russian embassy in Paris. Moscow sought to have the court find that Russia and not the émigré church is “the sole legal owner of the Orthodox cathedral.” But both the court of the first instance and the court of appeals has ruled against the Russian embassy.
Reluctant to press the case lest it disturb Franco-Russian relations, the embassy has now indicated that it views the Nice cathedral as “the common cultural property” of the Russian and French peoples and only seeks a court order to end the émigré practice of charging admission to the church’s fabulous collection of icons.
That outcome and that request are unlikely to pleasure the Moscow Patriarchate or all emigres. And thus this case is likely to be the harbinger of more legal and religious tensions among the Patriarchate, the Kremlin, the émigré parishes, and Western states, however much church leaders celebrating their reunion this week may hope otherwise.