Church of Saint Nicolas in Bari

URGENT Communiqué of the chancellery of Bishop Ambrose of Vevey

January 25/February 7 2000

ALSO IN Russian

The Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas in Bari, Italy, was founded in 1911 by the V. Rev. Father Ioann Vostorgov, a future New Martyr of Russia. This is the only Orthodox church located in the city were the Wonderworker's relics repose and it is therefore invaluable for the entire Orthodox Church.

Following the tragedy of the 1917 Revolution in Russia, the church was administered by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA). From 1921 to this day, priests appointed by the ROCA celebrated the religious services without interruption.

"However, in 1937 financial problems made it impossible for the owners to look after the church and the adjacent buildings. An agreement was then reached which specified that the city of Bari became the owner of the property while the Russian Church was granted complete and permanent use of the church and the buildings while the city was given the responsibility for the maintenance of and care for all the buildings and the salary of the priest serving at the church. One of the buildings located next to the church was made available for several municipal administrative offices. The same agreement spelled out the obligation of the city of Bari to guarantee the celebration of Orthodox church services "under the same clerical administration". From this moment on, the newly appointed priests always registered themselves with the municipality without any bureaucratic red tape."

The ROCA was always thankful to the city of Bari for making it possible that for the duration of almost sixty years a Russian Orthodox priest has been able to serve near the relics of the great saint. The parish of the Russian church in Bari is rather small but very diverse as it includes Russians, Serbs, Greeks and Orthodox Italians. The parish never limited itself to the city of Bari proper, and many letters were regularly received from Russia and the rest of the world from those who were affectionately referred to as "distant parishioners" and who requested that prayers be said for them and their relatives at the saint's relics. Many pilgrims also regularly came from all over the world.

Before 1996, during the time when repairs were being made at the upper church, services were celebrated alternatively in the upper and lower churches. Daily services are still currently celebrated in the lower church: Father Nikolai Todorovich, appointed to the church in 1999, celebrates the Vespers and the Typika daily.

Following the political changes in Russia, the early 1990s saw an increase in the number of pilgrims from Russia. The decades of separation between the MP and the ROCA and the open propaganda which was conducted against the ROCA in Russia had their effect: in several instances Russian pilgrims were told to go and pray even with the Roman Catholics rather than with the "Exiles". In the meanwhile, Russian officials paid increasingly frequent visits to the city of Bari officials.

In 1996 the office of the Mayor of city of Bari offered to the ROCA to create a commission tasked with discussing the changing situation and find ways to define new rules that would take into account the influx of pilgrims from Russia. Bishop Ambrose, who is responsible for the ROCA parishes in Italy, agreed to discuss this issue. During the month of May 1998, however, the city of Bari without ever having called the commission into session or consulting the ROCA signed a memorandum of intention and later, in November of the same year, an agreement with the MP. This agreement stated that the church and several sections of the former house for the pilgrims were handed over to the MP. The agreement also referred to some undefined "rights of the current users".

The MP immediately appointed a priest responsible for the church in Bari, Father Vladimir Kuchumov, but he arrived in the city later and began to celebrate only in December 1999 in the upper church that is currently undergoing final repairs.

This situation was unacceptable to the ROCA: the 1937 agreement had been unilaterally violated, the presence of the ROCA parish was deprived from a legal status, while the area available for the parish, the religious services and housing for the priest was substantially reduced. In the course of 1998 Bishop Ambrose sent several letters to the Mayor of Bari asking for clarifications; he also offered a plan for a settlement in response to a request made by the authorities. His letters and his proposal never received any response. There can be no doubt about the fact that a Church should not have to prove its ecclesiological existence in front of a secular court. This blatant violation of the 1937 agreement forced Bishop Ambrose to seek to defend the rights of his parish by legal means. In January 1999, a civil lawsuit was filed against the Municipality of Bari.

In October of 1999, the court rendered a preliminary verdict, which prohibited the Municipality from making any changes to the legal ownership of the church premises until the final verdict of the court. Basing his actions upon this decision, Bishop Ambrose demanded from the authorities a full implementation of the 1937 agreement. The authorities refused to comply. In response, Bishop Ambrose, in accordance with the preliminary verdict of October 1999, during his visit to Bari for the Feast of Saint Nicholas on 18/21 December, 1999, secured for the parish two adjacent buildings which had always belonged to the parish. It was planned that the family of the priest would live in them, as for the first time in many years a married priest with a family was appointed to the church. Previously, there had been no need for such accommodations. On December 23, immediately after the departure of Bishop Ambrose, the local police, responding to a call from the MP priest penetrated inside the church premises. Father Nikolai was manhandled in front of his 12-year-old daughter and had his keys taken from him by force. The police even had the impudence of brutally interrogating Father Nikolai while using his daughter as a translator. Bishop Ambrose returned to Bari on December 27 when he filed a lawsuit (a criminal lawsuit this time) against the Mayor and the Chief of Police. Following Bishop Ambrose's departure, the police broke into the church grounds again, forcibly expelling Father Nikolai who was forced to leave Italy for Yugoslavia. He was allowed to return two days later.

What has happened, and what is still happening, is a blatant abuse of power by the city authorities who, instead of upholding the rule of law and order, refuse to submit to the decisions of the courts. The city of Bari and the MP priest, who constantly interfere with the life of the ROCA parish (by for example, preventing Father Nikolai from accessing the bell tower), come close to violating the Italian Constitution (and the constitutional norms of any other democratic country) which guarantees religious freedom.

The court will soon render its verdict, but it is already becoming obvious that the dispute in Bari is not simply an issue of "ownership" and that it has a much more profound dimension. The church of Saint Nicholas in Bari is miraculously linked to the names of numerous New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. The inspirer and the main donator for the construction of the church was the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II; the director of the construction committee was the monastic martyr the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and the first ruling bishop the Metropolitan Benjamin of Saint Petersburg. The nun Mother Nikolaia who lived by the church for more than six decades had been told to go live there by the Elders of Optina even before the construction of the church had begun. The current struggle in Bari is a struggle between, on one hand, those who for three quarters of a century were being the true witnesses for Orthodoxy during the time of the worst persecutions the Church has ever suffered, and on the other hand, the successors of those who executed and approved of these persecutions.

Chancellery of the Bishop Ambrose of Vevey
18 rue de Beaumont
CH 1206 Geneva
Tel./fax: 41 22 / 346 47 09
Geneva, January 25/February 7 2000AD.
Gregory the Theologian

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