New Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris reflects Moscow's growing global role

Paris -- At the end of the long liturgy to consecrate the new Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris, Patriarch Kirill turned to the congregation to say a few words of recognition for all who helped build the French capital's new landmark.

"I would like to thank the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin," he began, before also mentioning former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and others. "Positive decisions at the highest level allowed us to carry out this excellent project."

Thanking absent politicians before mentioning the gold-robed prelates gathered before him on Dec. 4 might not have been the usual protocol for such a ceremony. But Kirill's Moscow Patriarchate, which claims authority for believers across the former Soviet Union and anywhere else where Russian Orthodox live, could not have erected the gleaming white cathedral along the River Seine without their help.

Sarkozy, hoping back in 2009 to cement good French-Russian relations, ensured that Moscow was awarded the vacant plot near the Eiffel Tower, which Saudi Arabia also wanted for an embassy and mosque. In turn, Putin — or more precisely, the Russian state — paid the 170-million-euro ($175 million) bill in full.

In an unusual step, Moscow even obtained diplomatic immunity for the "spiritual and cultural center" — as the cathedral and conference building complex is known — by declaring it the official chapel of its Paris embassy.

The result is the golden-domed Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, one of the most prominent examples in the West of post-communist Russia's return to a global presence and the alliance it has forged with the Russian Orthodox church. Parisians aware of Moscow's role in the background refer to it as "Saint Vladimir's."

The cathedral project was unlikely for several reasons. Although the Moscow Patriarchate accounts for a bit more than half the world's 300 million Orthodox and is the second-largest single church in Christianity after Roman Catholicism, it has only a small flock here.

Among about 400,000 Orthodox Christians in France, it has fewer followers than the larger Greek and Romanian Orthodox churches.

The Russian Orthodox here are also split, with Moscow's flock overshadowed by the exiled Russians and their families who left the motherland after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and founded their own parishes in France and an influential seminary in Paris.

Those Russians, who switched their religious allegiance to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople (Istanbul), have long had their own ornate Alexander Nevsky Cathedral near the Arc de Triomphe.

Until the new cathedral opened, Moscow's faithful prayed in a converted garage hidden in a courtyard in a residential Paris arrondissement.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russian Orthodox church emerged from seven decades of oppression to find post-communist politicians and oligarchs with fresh riches ready to help reestablish its role in the new society.

Religion helped fill the ideological vacuum left by the failure of Marxism, while the church, an integral part of Russian history and culture, fit well into the country's new nationalism.

Both under Putin and former President Boris Yeltsin, the church has developed into a thriving institution that works closely with the Kremlin to promote common interests. Putin and other Russian leaders frequently appear at religious events and praise the church as a spiritual bulwark against degenerate foreign influences.

With strong financial backing from oligarchs, it has built or restored tens of thousands of churches in the past quarter century, mostly at home but also in over 60 countries including distant locations such as Havana, Caracas, Bangkok and Pyongyang.

Its global reach amounts to a network of the new Russian presence around the world, parallel to Moscow's embassies and trade missions, and it works to promote Russian culture through state agencies such as the new Russian Literature and Language Society founded this year, whose chairman is Kirill himself.

"Preserving our language, literature and culture is a question of national security and of preserving our identity in a globalized world," Putin told a meeting of the society in Moscow in May.

The Paris cathedral complex will include a branch of the Pushkin Institute to promote the teaching of Russian in France. "This is a personal project of Vladimir Putin," an embassy official told the French daily Le Figaro when it opened last month.

The Kremlin has even included the church in its foreign policy strategy, calling on Kirill to visit areas of special interest such as Syria, where he met President Bashar al-Assad shortly after the civil war there began. The church has also mediated at times in the Ukraine crisis.

The church's proximity to power has not gone unnoticed in Europe, where Moscow has been active encouraging the nationalist far-right, and Germany has already expressed concern about possible Russian cyber meddling in its general election next year.

Last month, the European Parliament denounced what it called Moscow's "anti-European Union propaganda" in a resolution that said: "The Russian Government is employing a wide range of tools and instruments — think tanks and special foundations, special authorities, multilingual TV stations, pseudo-news agencies and multimedia services — as well as cross-border social and religious groups, since the regime wants to present itself as the only defender of traditional Christian values."

Anna Fotyga, the Polish member of the European Parliament who sponsored the resolution, originally wanted it to explicitly name the Russian Orthodox church, but this was not spelled out in the final text.

For its part, the Kremlin regularly speaks up for oppressed Middle East Christians — many of whom are Orthodox — and the foreign ministry works with the Moscow Patriarchate to provide aid to Christians in Syria.

Putin himself helped arrange the merger of the Russian Orthodox church outside Russia, the U.S.-based group of anti-communist Russians in exile after 1917, with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007.

"The revival of church unity today is a crucial condition for the revival of the lost unity of the whole Russian world, which has always had the Orthodox faith as its foundation," he said at the reunification ceremony.

Despite the many examples of close cooperation, the Kremlin and the church do not always agree, though the Moscow Patriarchate has far more freedom than it had during the communist period.

To reporters who ask about the risks of being too close to power, church spokesman Vladimir Legoyda asks which side survived the collapse of communism and which didn't. "The state has its own goals, and the church has its own goals. To people who ask if our relationship with the state is good today, I say: 'Do you want it to be bad?' "

Still, when their cooperation works, both sides want to take the credit. Putin originally planned to attend the opening of the Paris cathedral in October, but pulled out when French President François Hollande said Putin would only be welcome if he was ready for some frank talk about the war in Syria as well.

"I'm sure he'll come to Paris someday and will certainly visit the cathedral, which after all he wanted to have built," Russian ambassador Alexander Orlov told France 2 television after the consecration.