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VIP apartment of ROC Patriarch in focus of growing row.

March 29, 2012, 17:48 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The VIP apartment of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is in the focus of a growing row. As it turned out just recently, the Patriarch is involved in several-years-long litigation with a neighbor. Reportedly he has sued the man 20 million rubles for dust and dirt from repairs. The neighbor is a surgeon of world renown, a former health minister and, besides, an ordained priest himself.

The past few months saw a tide of unprecedented criticism against the Russian Orthodox Church, say analysts, all curious about the underlying reasons.

The row involving the Patriarch and the former health minister appeared in the limelight last week, although the litigation is in its third year already. As follows from what mass media say, the Patriarch is a party to a lawsuit against his neighbor in the Stalinist era VIP apartment building overlooking the Kremlin. The neighbor’s name is Yuri Shevchenko. When his apartment was in the process of repairs, dust from construction work reportedly spread one storey higher to have spoiled Patriarch Kirill’s home. The plaintiff wants the neighbor pay a hefty sum of 20 million rubles (700,000 dollars). In compensation the plaintiffs would like to get Shevchenko’s apartment, and also the apartment of his wife nearby. The surgeon, who, as it has turned out during the investigation, has an oncologic disease, is faced with the risk of losing his housing and becoming a debtor as well.

This confusing affair is said to have begun back in 2010. The family of the former health minister, renowned heart surgeon Yuri Shevchenko, bought two apartments at Serafimovich Street, 2 – a landmark building commonly known as the House on the Embankment. He had no prior knowledge that his neighbor upstairs was Vladimir Gundyayev (the secular name of Patriarch Kirill).

In the spring of the same year Shevchenko was summoned to court. Patriarch Kirill’s proxies said dust from repair work in the surgeon’s apartment spoiled Patriarch’s 144-square meter suite. The demanded compensation looked huge – 20 million rubles.

The plaintiffs said that according to experts’ conclusions, presented to court, the dust contained some tiny particles which “in case of prolonged contact may cause adverse effects on human health and trigger oncologic diseases.”

The court’s ruling was in Patriarch Kirill’s favor. It obliged Shevchenko to pay the 20 million. The heart surgeon’s apartment was put under arrest. But the court estimated the property at 15 million, so the ex-minister may not only to lose the apartment, but also remain neck-deep in debt.

Of particular interest to the yellow press and the Internet surfers is the following circumstance. The Patriarch himself is not involved in court hearings. He is represented by a woman called Lidiya Leonova, who has not presented any documents confirming her powers as Patriarch Kirill’s representative to day. The press office of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church has refused to explain the reasons why the woman appears in court on behalf of the Patriarch.

As magazine Ogonyok wrote several years ago, Lidiya Leonova and Vladimir Gundyayev have been on friendly terms for more than 30 years. A number of commercial businesses, somehow connected with the former metropolitan, are registered at her address. Besides, some authors in the blogosphere, free from the need to abide by the rules of political correctness and Russian laws establishing punishment for slander have hinted at a more than just friendly relationship between Lidiya Leonova and the Patriarch.

As for Shevchenko, the man, when he was still the head of the Health Service Ministry, became on friendly terms with Patriarch Alexy II, Kirill’s predecessor. With a blessing from Alexy II he graduated from the theological academy in Tashkent and was ordained a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Shevchenko established a friendly relationship with the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine Vladimir. Experts recall that when Metropolitan Kirill was elected Patriarch, Shevchenko did not hurry to him with a bow of respect, which, some speculate, might be the root cause of the current conflict.

“Yuri Shevchenko is a person who keeps aloof from such intrigues. He remains a practicing surgeon. He is recognized and respected by the world’s cardio-surgery elite. Quite often he performs operations in Russia and in other countries. Medicine is his obsession. Also, he is active as a priest at the Pirogov National Center of Surgery, where he has built a church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker,” people close to Shevchenko are quoted by as saying. “He is seriously ill (he suffers from an oncological disease), and his sole wish is to have fair court proceedings. He wants the court to look at the gist of the matter, and not at who represents the plaintiff.”

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has long kept quiet about the affair, has had to offer its comment at last. The official point of view is this - all attempts to link the Patriarch’s name with this case are nothing but an example of dirty defamation technologies. “Yesterday they gossiped about ‘Patriarch’s rumored yachts and dachas,’ and tomorrow they may think up something else,” said the chief of the Synodal information department, Vladimir Legoida.

At one of the previous court sessions Shevchenko’s lawyers said that under the St. Basil the Great Charter and in accordance with the Charter of the Russian Orthodox Church an Orthodox monk - and Patriarch Kirill certainly is one - has no right to own any property. There has been no reply to this question either from the Russian Orthodox Church, or from the court.

In the meantime, the public is intrigued. “On April 3, 1969 Vladimir Gundyayev took four monastic vows under the name of Kirill – vows of obedience, celibacy, of non-possessiveness (pledge not to have personal property) and constant prayer,” says journalist Saken Aimurzayev in his blog on the Ekho Moskvy radio station’s website. “It is up to the confessor to judge how obedient and pious monk Kirill is. As for the two other vows, one cannot but ask questions in the light of the property row.”

“Quite often Church representatives, when reproached for luxury, respond that all that is not their personal property, but the property of the Church… But Patriarch Kirill’s is a lifetime position, and he owns the apartment not virtually, but legally… So it has turned out that Monk Kirill has abused the vow of non-possessiveness,” the journalist says, adding that since there are question marks over two of the first vows the Patriarch had made, “isn’t it worth clearing up the situation at last?”

The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta says the Moscow Patriarchate has experienced a tide of criticism over the past few months. Quite often the criticism is constructive, but there have also been “punches below the belt” and plain profanities. This is really so. The public at large tends to attribute this upsurge of discontent to the Church’s and the Patriarch’s straightforward attitude to the political authorities. During the presidential election campaign Patriarch Kirill repeatedly threw his weight behind Vladimir Putin.

“The Russian Orthodox Church has suddenly found itself a target for filthy techniques that are so common in politics,” says the daily. “It looks like the Church’s leaders are in confusion in their current unenviable position.”

MOSCOW, March 29