Construction is finally under way for a new Russian Orthodox cathedral on the Quai Branly in Paris. Work is moving forward on the main gold dome of the cathedral following eight years of political, financial and architectural strife that otherwise stymied progress.
However, the cathedral is still a source of contention. This past Thursday the Independent reports that a French court to attempted to further delay building by seizing all assets on the site, totalling €170 million ($190 million).
The issues surrounding the cathedral have stemmed from the building’s inescapable links to a larger political picture. The very location and name of the cathedral have caused some to worry about the political implications of its construction. Though the cathedral is officially named Sainte-Trinité, its nickname, “Saint Vladmir’s,” is a nod to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The cathedral, which is located close to the Eiffel Tower, will be a conspicuous Russian religious symbol amongst the government and embassies that surround it.
Because of the Russian state’s efforts supporting the construction of Sainte-Trinité, fears arose early on that the Kremlin was pulling some sort of political ploy and has more than religious intentions in mind. Suspicions have been furthered because of the cathedral’s prime location amongst buildings that house some of the French government’s most well-kept secrets, asserting Russia’s presence on France’s very doorstep.
However, French intelligence services are working to nullify any potential threat that Sainte-Trinité might pose to France’s security. According to reports in the French media, jamming devices, which would prevent the use of electronic surveillance on nearby government offices, have been installed all around the cathedral.
Objections to Sainte-Trinité are not only for its potential role to Russia as an ear for the Kremlin in Paris. Others see the large Russian orthodox cathedral as incongruous with its surroundings in the heart of Paris.
Thus, Sainte-Trinité will be an overtly religious symbol of the power of the Russian state that is highly contrasted with a stringently secular French Republic. It is a reminder that Russia is not only a threat with its military might but is also expanding its influence on a religious front as well.
In recent history, Russia has utilized its firepower to exert an intervening presence in its neighbour countries of Ukraine and Georgia. Andrew Higgins of the New York Times notes that a much more effective tool for reaching the Kremlin’s long arm across Europe is using the Russian Orthodox faith to bolster the Russian government’s conservative views.
The Russian Orthodox church’s beliefs do not uphold individual rights above those of the family, community and nation as a whole. With these views, the Russian Orthodox Church is the perfect ally for the Kremlin, aiding in the dissemination of conservative viewpoints that are at odds with an increasingly globalized, multicultural world that is fighting for women’s and gay rights.
The effectiveness of the alliance between the religious institution and state has been exemplified in former Soviet lands most particularly. For instance, in Moldova, senior priests who have remained aligned with the Moscow church hierarchy have been continuously spearheading the opposition to their country’s integration with western powers. Similarly, priests in Montenegro are at the forefront of efforts to keep their nation from becoming a part of NATO.
However, Russia’s religious influence spans even further. The Sainte-Trinité is a symbol of a bigger effort that is being exerted on the religious front to take control of religious real estate that is owned by religious rivals. The Russian church took another aggressive stance on the French Riviera in Nice when it attempted to seize control of a private Orthodox cemetery. Though thwarted in its attempts to take the cemetery, the Russian church was successful in its efforts at seizing Nice’s Orthodox cathedral, St. Nicholas.
This cathedral was once controlled by the French Orthodox association, which owes its loyalty to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, a rival of the Russian Orthodoxy that has provided an escape for Putin’s religious foes.
However, the Russian church came out victorious in a 2013 legal battle, allowing the Moscow Patriarchate to take control. These attempts have ignited fear in Alexis Obolensky, who is president of the Association Culturelle Orthodoxe Russse, an association comprised of French believers descended from White Russians who fled their homeland during the Bolshevik Revolution. Obelensky asserts, “They [the Russian church] are advancing pawns here and everywhere; they want to show that there is only one Russia, the Russia of Putin.”
Through such actions, many fear the Russian state is attempting to use its close connections with the Russian Orthodox Church to create a combined secular-religious front as a ploy to extend Russia’s international power by attaining a foothold in France.