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Russia: Orthodox Church Finds New Home In Ireland

The Russian Orthodox Church is to receive an official home in Ireland for the first time after the Church of Ireland agreed to lease it one of its Dublin parish churches. The church will cater to a growing number of Orthodox believers in this predominantly Catholic country and will become the Russian Orthodox Church's most westerly parish church in Europe.

Prague, 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- About two years ago, Metropolitan Anthony, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, received a letter from a group of around 20 emigre Russians in Dublin, the Irish capital.

They asked him to send a priest to officiate at weddings and baptisms. He chose Father Michael Gogoleff, a priest at London's Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition and All Saints. Gogoleff describes what it was like in the beginning: "When I arrived there was just a little group of people. We were totally isolated, with no [people]. And now, after one and a half, two years, we are about 1,000 people, because immigration increased."

Father Gogoleff was appointed dean of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ireland and now splits his time between London and Dublin. In the Irish capital, Gogoleff's congregation has grown so large, he says, that it became obvious they needed a bigger place to worship.

"Presently we are worshipping in a tiny Greek Orthodox church, which is able to accommodate 200 people. They have been standing in the street in the rain, under umbrellas, so you realize the urgency for us."

He continues: "We have 150 children of school age. [Last year] I baptized nearly 50 people, and already 48 this year. We have marriages -- not one funeral because we are a young parish! So we decided to create a lot of things which we need for our development. We need a school, we need a kindergarten, we need a library, et cetera, and I was desperately looking for a building which suits all our needs."

Enter the Church of Ireland, a member of the community of Anglican churches that falls somewhere between Catholic and Protestant persuasions.

It offered the 164-year-old Harold's Cross church in Dublin, which can accommodate some 1,000 worshippers. Metropolitan Kirill -- head of the Russian Orthodox Church's external relations department and second in seniority after Patriarch Aleksii -- visited in September and again last week to discuss the transfer, which has now been agreed in principle. The church's lease is for nearly five years, after which the Russian Orthodox church has the option to buy.

As Harold's Cross is protected due to its architectural value, the new occupants need full planning permission from the Dublin municipal authorities to make any changes to its interior or exterior. These could include taking out the pews to allow the standing room traditional for Orthodox services. Other items, such as icons, Gogoleff says, will be imported from Russia: "We got the [planning] permission very recently and we are going to proceed with the works and hopefully within four, five months we will be able to move in."

When work is finished Metropolitan Kirill will come again to consecrate the church -- to be renamed Saint Peter and Paul. As with the rest of the Orthodox Church in Britain, it will fall under the Diocese of Sourozh, whose patron saint Stephen's relics lie in the London cathedral.

Gogoleff says his congregation is made up of a "microcosm" of the former Soviet Union, with believers from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics and Eastern Bloc countries. Some are skilled professionals filling jobs created by Ireland's recent economic boom; others are economic migrants.

The story of Harold's Cross church fits into a broader picture of change in Irish society over the past few years, says Valerie Jones, communications officer for the Church of Ireland's Dublin and Glendalough diocese.

It was those social and economic changes that led to the church becoming available in the first place. Jones says Harold's Cross was facing skyrocketing land rates -- caused by the recent boom in property prices -- coupled with a dwindling and aging congregation.

Jones says there's a twinge of regret at losing the church: "There's always some sadness at the closure of a church, but to see it go to another denomination such as the Russian Orthodox -- that would be a cause of joy."

She says the transfer of the church has stirred a lot of local media interest: "But I think by and large it's a sign of growing pluralism and growing tolerance and the diversity that there is in Irish society, that [it] would be welcomed."

Gogoleff says he has more ambitious plans afoot: "Once this center [is set up], which is a church and a Russian house -- because we will have a social club, library, bookshop, et cetera -- then the next step we are considering is to open other parishes in the towns of Cork and Limerick. These are other major towns in Ireland where there is a huge congregation of Orthodox people and we have had a meeting, because they came to the liturgy that was celebrated in Dublin on Saturday, 1 December. They said, 'We represent about 600 community people in Cork, please come and open a parish.' The same [request] came from Limerick. So definitely, we are going to open new parishes in Ireland."

But Gogoleff says that will have to wait till the Dublin church is up and running and he gets help in the form of Russian Orthodox priests sent to study in Ireland.

It's one step at a time, Gogoleff says -- or, as he puts it, "You can't chase two rabbits at once."