Rival Russians battle for German church

"IN OUR church you can see the entire history of this century," Father Grigory says with a wry smile. Clues to support his sweeping claim are hard to find, though. The paint on the ceiling is flaking, but for reasons no more apocalyptic than a leaky roof. The crosses on the five deep-blue onion domes are freshly gilded, and the exterior betrays no evidence of war. The fire storms that had raged through Dresden on that terrible night in February 1945 left the Church of the Holy Simeon standing alone in a vast desert of charred rubble. Some say it was a miracle.

Fr Grigory Davidov, Archpriest of Dresden's Russian Orthodox church, is praying for another divine intervention. He is a desperate man. Someone is trying to drive him and his 1,000-strong flock out of the church that only last week celebrated its 125th anniversary. The parish has been served with an eviction order under a Nazi law, and so far all attempts at legal defence have failed.

Fr Grigory prays that God will send him a smart lawyer, because technically he has no right to be in this building. He has been legally resident here for 15 years, but times have changed. The rightful owner now is the other Russian Orthodox Church, which was given the Holy Simeon in 1938 for services rendered to the Third Reich.

This is a conflict with a history. It is a takeover battle in which Fr Grigory is cast as the agent of Bolshevism, while the bailiffs are working for people who want the tsars back on their throne, and who were prepared to work with the Nazis before and during the war to achieve that goal.

The eviction order comes from Munich, German seat of the Russian Orthodox Church in exile. The Archbishop of Munich takes his orders from the church's headquarters in New York. Fr Grigory comes from Moscow. Behind him stands the Church in Mother Russia. The German authorities do not want to hear of his plight, perhaps because he also enjoys the support of East Germany's post-communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism.

And he has tradition on his side. With the exception of the war years, the Dresden parish was one of many in Western Europe which were under the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow. A minority of Russian Orthodox churches were not. Fiercely opposed to the Bolshevik takeover, some exiled royalists gathered in Yugoslavia in 1921 to found a new church.

The schism tore Russian parishes apart across the globe. On one side stood those who argued against involving the church in politics, and who accepted, even if they did not approve, of the Moscow Patriarch's acknowledgement of the Bolshevik regime.

But the exiled church did want to engage in politics, and sought allies. In Germany, that meant the Bolsheviks' sworn enemies: the Nazis. Russian monarchists helped the fledgling Nazi movement by giving money to Hitler's newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter. In 1938, five years after taking power, the Nazis repaid their debt by dispossessing the Russian Orthodox Church that was loyal to Moscow and handing over the property to the church in exile.

After the war, however, churches that fell into the Soviet-occupied zone were persuaded to renew their allegiance to Moscow. The Dresden church, an important place for Russian exiles where Dostoevsky had once had his daughter baptised and Rachmaninov had married off his daughter, came back to the fold. And finally: 1990. With East and West Germany reunited, pre- war communist property rights were restored.

Soon after reunification, Fr Grigory heard a knock on the door: the Archbishop of Munich had come to repossess. The Russians of Dresden tackled the problem in a Russian way. "They forged the papers in a criminal act, in which they deceived the German government and tried to make themselves owners of the building," says the Munich-based Archbishop, Mark Arndt, a German convert.

Fr Grigory says Archbishop Mark has stayed true to his national traits. "He is so German, he is stickler for the law to its last letter." And the law leaves no room for ambiguity: the Russians are squatters in Archbishop Mark's church.

For a while, the Archbishop could hold a service in the church but he says he was not given the keys to the building. That was not good enough. "It is important that justice is re-established," he says.

Justice, Anno 1938. "This has nothing to do with the Nazis," Archbishop Mark says. "It was at the time the Nazis were ruling the country but that doesn't make it a Nazi law." He himself was born in 1941, he adds, and his godfather was a Jew.

Fr Grigory sits in the musty cellar of a church that may or may not be his. The cross hanging on a gold chain is tucked into the breast pocket of his black robe as he turns his attention to worldly matters. "We are the victims of historical events," he keeps repeating in Russian, his German still not up to scratch after 15 years.

It should be a time for rejoicing. In darkest communist times, the church catered for no more than 50 or 60 souls, mostly wives of Soviet officers who sneaked into the service in secret. Now, with a new wave of Russian exiles engulfing Germany, the Dresden church, freshly restored with the help of public funds, is enjoying its golden age. It could all come to a sudden end if the resident priest, his family and his flock are summarily evicted. The Archbishop of Munich has no organisation in Dresden.

"This is a nightmare," Fr Grigory says. "If they win, you'll have a parish without a church and a church without a parish. It's absurd." Archbishop Mark thinks the world's two Russian Orthodox churches will merge, but probably not in the near future. In the meantime, he wants his property back.

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