NICE, France (Reuters) - The Russian state won a major legal victory today when a French court ruled that it was the owner of the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Nice -- one of the most beautiful outside the faith's homeland.
The decision gave a boost to Russia's post-communist Orthodox Church, which is looking to regain foreign properties whose congregations switched allegiance to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul after the 1917 Russian Revolution.
St. Nicholas Cathedral, a richly ornamented edifice in the French Riviera city of Nice, was run for years by descendants of so-called White Russian émigrés who had fled communism.
They argued that their cathedral association had become the rightful owner of the building, but the Russian state turned to the French courts to press their historical claim.
After studying documents dating back to the 19th century, the Nice court ruled in favor of Moscow.
"Even if the association had administrative and management powers over the cathedral, this does not mean it had ownership rights," the court said in a written ruling.
The association's lawyer, Antoine Chatain, said he would appeal against the decision.
"For 80 years, the association has owned the cathedral in good faith, without the Soviet Union, in the first place, and then the Russian Federation, producing any document of ownership or showing the slightest interest in the building," he said.
"For the first time, a foreign state has become the owner of a place of worship in France," he added.
Under the surface of the row lies a rivalry between the Russian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Kremlin, and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul to which St. Nicolas is linked.
Descendants of Russian émigrés, now mostly French citizens, have kept Orthodoxy alive in France and only a handful of their 57 French churches are linked to Moscow.
The others are tied to Istanbul or the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and Moscow is eager to regain the initiative.
St. Nicolas was built in 1912, with Tsar Nicholas II using his own funds to buy the land for this basilica.
At the time, the French Mediterranean coast was a Belle Epoque playground for the rich and famous of Russia and later became a popular refuge for White Russians.
After seven decades of communism, Russia's new wealthy once again frequent the Riveria and have bought some of the region's finest villas.