(timesonline) The Attorney-General has stepped into a High Court dispute in which a congregation is battling for ownership of the £15 million Russian Orthodox cathedral in London.
The David and Goliath battle in which the worshippers are taking on the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow comes to court this week.
The dispute has already aroused anger and dismay among the several hundred “exiled” worshippers who see the battle as symbolising a bigger contest — for the heart of the Russian Orthodox church in Britain.
Now, in advance of the hearing, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, QC, Britain’s chief law officer, has stepped in on the side of Moscow.
In her role as protector of the public interest in charities, the Attorney-General has advised the trustees, through the Government’s Treasury Solicitors, that she backs the Moscow Patriarchate.
The congregation’s parish and diocese, which are charitable trusts, claim to be the rightful heirs and owners of the assets of the South Kensington-based cathedral and its five properties.
But the head of the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, the Moscow Patriarchate, has challenged their claim.
The letter from Government lawyers says: “The papers have been carefully considered by counsel and the conclusion of the Attorney-General is that as a matter of factual and legal analysis the Moscow Patriarchate adherents are entitled to control the charities and their funds are applicable for the promotion of the religious lives of the Moscow Diocesan and Parish communities.”
The trustees argue that this effectively pre-determines the court’s decision. But it also means they may have to go to court without legal representation unless lawyers act free of charge.
The Moscow church, now headed by the new Patriarch, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, an alleged former KGB agent, has installed its own bishop in the cathedral; the parishioners, meanwhile, who include many of the old guard of the White Russian community in London, worship in borrowed premises at St Andrew’s Church in Holborn.
The parishioners plan to call a number of witnesses to put their case, including Archibishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain, who is the senior Orthodox churchman in this country.
Deacon Peter Scorer, one of the congregation, said: “This is very much a David and Goliath case, with the Russian Orthodox diocese having limitless financial support from ‘sympathetic’ oligarchs, and our vicariate having to depend on donations from individuals, having no funds of its own.”