ROCOR-MP Seeks To Usurp Astoria

From: Novoe Russkoe Slovo Daily Russian American Newspaper on the web
V. Yarmolinets reports on Astoria
A battle for souls or for property?
January 23, 2008 – Vadim Yarmolinets

A letter from Bishop Gabriel of Manhattan to Fr. Vsevolod Dutikow, the pastor of the Holy Trinity parish in Astoria, Queens, NY, appeared on the ROCOR(MP) official website on January 16, 2008, in which he asked him to return under the omofor of Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, Metropolitan Laurus. If he did not, the Synod of Bishops threatened to confiscate the parish property through legal means. You will remember that last year on May 17, the ROCOR(MP) hierarch Metropolitan Laurus signed an act of union with the Moscow Patriarchate (MP), which in effect placed him under their command. A number of parishes refused to follow after Laurus, remaining under the omofor of ROCA Bishop Agafangel of Odessa.

Though the division among the parishes in the diaspora was based on religious grounds (Moscow refused to honor the ROCOR request for the MP to resign from the World Council of Churches, and to condemn the Declaration of the Stalin-created Metropolitan Sergey Stragorodskiy, which called for loyalty to the atheist regime), the split did not end with each church just going on its own, freely chosen way. The question arose of how to divide the property. The opposition parishes in the USA are not many, and presumably, those staying with Laurus are fully capable of supporting Synod with the traditional ten percent. One can also assume that Synod is not just interested in holding on to sources of income, but believes that without a roof over their heads (that is without their churches) the opposition will fall apart.

(Bp.) Gabriel’s letter was sent to Astoria at the end of November of last year. After NRS reported on the letter, and it was commented on in the Internet, Gabriel decided to publish his appeal, denying critics the opportunity to interpret it their own way. Which is a good thing, openness will not hinder a good deed. “His Eminence, Metropolitan Laurus and I are very concerned and saddened by the events occurring at the Holy Trinity parish, where a group of people, who enjoy total control, are trying to tear the parish away from the bosom of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia by their actions,” is how the Bishop of Manhattan begins his letter.

Before we look at the section of the letter in which the pastor is admonished that disobedience will result in retaliatory measures, allow me to comment on the excerpt cited above. The division which Gabriel presumes to want to avoid, has already occurred. In the year since the document acknowledging union was signed, “a group of people,” that is, the opposition, has established its Provisional Supreme Ecclesiastical Authority, ordained two bishops, and is now busy restoring a normal life in the church among those parishes which refused to follow Laurus. If one believes Gabriel, this so-called “group of people” fooled the naïve parishioners. That is not so. The priests and their parishioners made their decision completely consciously and freely.

“I have been and still am against union!” states Aleksandr Borisovich Okhotnikoff, who is 77 years old and was born in France to a White Army officer. He has been attending the Astoria church for 50 years already and has full right to call it his spiritual home. Another parishioner, Larisa Dekermendzhi, who arrived in the USA from Kiev in 1991, agrees with the opinion of the elderly immigrant, “No one forced anyone. Who wanted to follow Synod, did so a long time ago. Who did not want to, stayed. This church is our home, Fr. Vsevolod is our priest, and we do not need any other.” The free movement of parishioners from the churches of the opposition to Synod and vice versa has surprisingly resulted in an increase in the number of parishioners at Holy Trinity Church. In the words of a member of the parish council, Artur Suvalov, the surge of new parishioners began soon after May 17th and the total number of parishioners increased by 20%.

Let us now consider the threats made in the letter from Gabriel: “You, dear father, and your followers should not console yourselves with illusions that we will somehow give in to your attempts to tear the Holy Trinity parish in Astoria away from our church. If you continue to persist, then understand that legal precedents in adjudicating such matters in the state of New York favor our hierarchical church.” To underscore the seriousness of its intent, Synod declared in its 2008 directory that the position of pastor at the Holy Trinity parish was available. In other words, according to the directory, Fr. Vsevolod has already ceased to exist as far as Synod is concerned.

I contacted the Synod press secretary, Nicholas Okhotin, and asked him to explain what legal rights Gabriel was talking about. He answered, “The pastor of a parish is assigned by the ruling bishop. With this assignment, he has the right to live in the rectory attached to the church and serve in the church. The members of the parish council are approved by the ruling bishop. The ruling bishop has the right to relieve them of their duties for disobedience. He has the right to relieve the pastor of the parish of his duties, as he is the chairman of the parish council.” “You explained the relationship between a ruling bishop, the pastor, and the parish council, but you did not explain who has rights over the property. Did Synod purchase this property?” I asked. “I don’t know the details,” answered Okhotin.

To find out the details, it is enough to glance at the parish website at www.holytrinityastoria.com. The history of the parish is provided in exact detail. The parish, first named in honor of the Elevation of the Cross, appeared in Astoria in 1915. It moved several times, but always stayed within Astoria, which had a large Orthodox community. The name was changed to Holy Trinity in 1935, and in 1964, it purchased the property (a church with a rectory attached), where it has remained to this day. The purchase of the property was accomplished through the hard work of the parishioners and Synod did not contribute a single rusty penny. On the contrary, the Synod received its ten percent from the Astoria parish for years. At the time of the purchase, a non-commercial corporation was created, whose board of directors has the right to hire a priest, pay him a salary, and provide housing.

Knowing this, I asked Mr. Okhotin, “That which we call a parish in church terms, is called an independent corporation in legal terms.” “No, it is not independent,” he retorted, “It falls under the terms and conditions of the Church Abroad.” “But I though that it falls under the laws of New York State first,” I added. Our conversation soon ended, with Mr. Okhotin explaining that he was busy. On my request to speak with the Synod’s lawyer, he answered that he would get the approval and blessing of his superiors and call me back. He also wrote down my phone number.

A month went by. Okhotin did not call me back. It would seem his superiors did not give their blessing for open dialogue with the newspaper, nor contact with its lawyer. The former can be explained by the nature of a church administration. It is not a democratic institution, with its attendant freedom of speech and thought. In such a case, Okhotin’s duty is not to allow a two-way dialogue with the press, but only to pass along the opinion of his superiors. This is the church way and also the Soviet way, where freedom of conscience is only enjoyed by the superiors based on their concepts of conscience and freedom. I can only explain their refusal to connect me with their lawyer, by the fact that Synod knows fully well the opinion of the lawyer may differ greatly from the words of Bishop Gabriel that, “the legal precedents in resolving such issues in the state of New York are completely on our side.” One gets the feeling that Bishop Gabriel is simply bluffing, in an attempt to frighten the insubordinate priest. The lawyers with whom I discussed this matter, said the result of such a lawsuit, if Synod were to start one, is totally unpredictable.

The Holy Trinity parish came into being long before the arrival of the ROCOR Synod in the USA from Western Europe. The church and the attached rectory were purchased by the funds of its parishioners in 1963. Synod had no connection to this purchase. The parish was established as a non-commercial corporation, and no representatives of Synod were among its founders. Synod has no legal grounds to state categorically that the parish property belongs to it.

The courts may interpret the matter of hierarchical authority differently. My consultant, who has been involved in at least one court battle with Synod, pointed out that every state has a different opinion on hierarchical authority. The court case last year involving Synod and the Protection of the Mother of God parish in the New Jersey town of Buena can be used as an example. In September of last year, Judge William Todd made a ruling, which Synod interpreted as a victory for itself. In reality, the judge only forbid the corporation that administers the parish property from selling the property. And that is all! Therefore, the corporation could continue to decide all aspects of the parish’s affairs. Sadly, part of the parish has died off, while another part has moved away. The whole corporation consists of – the widow and daughter of the deceased priest. The key element in the New Jersey court case involving Synod, was that a representative of Synod was installed in the corporation’s board of directors when the Protection of the Mother of God parish was started. It was an honorary position, but it led to the parish being connected to Synod legally. Such a connection between Synod and the Holy Trinity parish in Queens does not exist.

Another example is the court case involving Synod and the Holy Ascension parish in Wooster, Massachusetts, in the early 90’s. The case was a stunning defeat for Synod at all three legal levels – from the local court to the state supreme court. Fr. Spyridon from Massachusetts explained that Synod laid claim on the parish when it decided to join a jurisdiction of the Greek church. Each court ruled that Synod has authority in all matters spiritual and in the observance of the church canons, but that the property belonged to the parish which maintained it. Just as Synod lost in Massachusetts, it can lose in New York. This will not be the first time it lost in New York. In the 40’s, Synod lost the case to take over the St. Nicholas (MP) church in Manhattan. In the 70’s, it lost the case in Sea Cliff on Long Island, when the local parish decided to join the Orthodox Church of America. More importantly, will this list of defeats stop Synod, which according to many, is being financed by Moscow?

An interesting point was made on the Internet “Live Journal” site of Yevgeniy Lvovich Magerovskiy, in which he posts commentary on church events in the USA: Synod may hesitate due to the cooling of relations between Russia and the West. The demands of the Synod may appear in America as an expansion ofPutin’s government, which is gradually beginning to look more and more like a totalitarian, neo-Soviet regime. Synod may decide not to pursue the matter given the current political climate, as it will certainly attract attention from the American press and politicians. Presumably, Americans will not sympathize withMoscow, which will be making claims on American property through its new emissaries.

There is another point that the Synod of Metropolitan Laurus may want to consider. Since May 17, 2007, it no longer reflects the opinion of the entire Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The Orthodox, Russian-speaking diaspora made a free and conscious choice. In the fight against this expressed free will, Synod has thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars out the window, and is ready to spend more hundreds of thousands, which could be put to good use in the construction of new churches, fixing those which remained with them, and improving the material well-being of its poor priests and not its lawyers.

1 comment:

Joanna Higginbotham said...

Sue! Sue! Sue!

ROCOR-L is suing the parish in Oxnard, too.

Here's another suit or two:

http://euphrosynoscafe.com/about/index.html
This taken from" ABOUT" the Euphrosynos Cafe:

In early 2003, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (Laurus Synod) quietly decided in a synodal meeting that they would not permit the Café to use the ROCOR name any longer, so they — without any warning to the Café administrators — shut down our store by means of an anonymous legal threat to Cafe Press, our online store provider. Thus, after his rebuilding the store and getting it shut down yet again, Nicholas investigated and finally learned who had made the legal threats. He initiated communication with the ROCOR-L synod to see why they had chosen this course of action in lieu of contacting him. The synod claimed they had to do this to protect the ROCOR name and that this was to show a pattern of protecting their copyright when they in the future would sue the ROCOR-V for using the ROCOR name.