PARIS (RNS) - If all goes as planned, a golden-domed Russian Orthodox Church will flank the Seine River two years from now, a glittering symbol of Moscow’s growing spiritual and political presence abroad.
Construction is expected to begin shortly on the complex, which will include a primary school and a cultural center. For the Moscow Patriarchate, it represents the latest in a string of high-profile buildings erected in such places as Spain, Thailand and Dubai that burnish not only the church’s image but that of the Russian government, which picks up the construction costs.
“The Russian church culture is the culture of Russia,” said Stephen Headley, an American-born Russian Orthodox priest in France and author of “Christ After Communism,” which examines Orthodoxy in post-Soviet Russia. “The ideology of separation of church and state was never strong.”
In France, home to tens of thousands of Russian Orthodox — there are no precise figures — the Moscow Patriarchate has retaken possession of a century-old church in Nice. In 2009, it also opened its first seminary in Western Europe, outside Paris.
But this latest project, proposed next to the Eiffel Tower, has faced political and aesthetic roadblocks since it was first floated in 2007. France’s former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, embraced the idea. But the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, judged the church’s initial design “mediocre.” The newest plans, drawn up by renowned French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, appear to have passed muster.
It will not be the first church catering to Russian Orthodox. Across the Seine lies the 19th-century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, once a hub for the Russian diaspora in France that fled the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. That church falls under the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople, underscoring old divisions that have never healed.
Most Orthodox in France have little interest in ecumenical battles, Headley said. “People don’t go to church on the basis of the ethnicity, they go to church because they like it, it’s nearby.”
The common denominator, he said, is the church’s conservative stances on issues such as abortion and gay marriage — stances that run counter to the social mores and laws of this staunchly secular country but respond to traditions that some are yearning for.