Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, joined worshipers at the weekend for the first major service held in the huge Cathedral of Christ the Savior, whose reconstruction is nearing completion. Stalin blew up the cathedral in 1931. A public swimming pool was built on the site in the 1960s when plans from the Stalin era to replace the church with a giant skyscraper topped with Lenin's sculpture were dropped. Its reconstruction over the past five years is seen by many as a symbol of religious revival in post-Communist Russia. Standing 338 feet tall, it dominates the skyline of central Moscow. At the service, which began late January 7 to mark the Orthodox Christmas, Putin, a former colonel in the KGB, made the sign of the cross as he stood among a crowd of other leading politicians. Since the collapse of Communism and of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, senior Russian officials often attend Orthodox services marking major religious festivals. Prime Minister Putin, who became Russia's acting president after President Boris Yeltsin's sudden resignation December 31, and who is the leading candidate for the presidential elections set for March 26, is no exception. At a ceremony in the Kremlin to mark the transfer of power on December 31, Putin received the blessing of Patriarch Alexei II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin is immensely popular in Russia because of the military campaign in the southern breakaway republic of Chechenya. The campaign has been strongly criticized in the West for indiscriminate bombings causing much civilian suffering. But in the past few days Russian troops appear to have encountered fierce resistance and a growing number of casualties in the Chechen capital of Grozny. On January 7, Orthodox Christmas day, the military announced a suspension of their assault on Grozny saying they would regroup their forces for a final attack. Tens of thousands of civilians who remain in town are being used by Chechen militants as a human shield.Emerging from the cathedral in the early hours of January 8, Putin linked the suspension to the religious festivals."As for Grozny, remember what day it is now for Orthodox Christians and tomorrow for Muslims," Putin said in televised comments referring to Christmas and to the feast marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. "We will not forget that and we will respect the feelings of believers."Despite the acting president's remarks, ground operations continued around Grozny, and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said today that the lull in bombing of the capital Grozny for Orthodox Christmas was over.Putin and his advisers appear to be taking the religious factor in Russian politics even more seriously than their predecessors. In remarks to reporters January 6, Putin spoke of the religious meaning of Christmas in a way that no politician had previously been able to. "Why has Christ come into the world?," the acting president asked. "To liberate people from sicknesses, troubles, and from death. In its essence, Christmas is a holiday of hope. I want to congratulate everyone, first and foremost all Orthodox Christians, on the joyous holiday. But not only Orthodox Christians—I want to congratulate all who look with love and pride at the revival of the traditions of the [ethnic] Russian people and the traditions of [other] peoples living in Russia."In an attempt not to alienate some 20 million Russian Muslims, Putin also became the first senior politician to say publicly that Moscow was not fighting Islam in Chechenya, but only "bandits" and "terrorists," a message he reiterated to Muslims January 8. The media coverage of the end of Ramadan was for the first time almost as extensive as the coverage of the Orthodox Christmas the previous day.The Christmas service at the rebuilt Cathedral was conducted by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, just hours after returning from Bethlehem, where he celebrated the two-thousandth anniversary of Christ's birth in an unprecedented solemn service together with 13 other heads of the world's Orthodox Churches, former president Boris Yeltsin and political leaders of Greece, Cyprus, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus."On the holy site, where 2,000 years ago the Savior was born, we prayed for our Motherland, for the leaders of the country, so that the Lord would bless our Motherland with peace and accord in the coming twenty-first century," the patriarch told the congregation in Moscow, which included 18 bishops, dozens of priests and 4,000 other worshippers. Many of the worshipers were construction workers and artists who had worked to rebuild the cathedral and paint its giant interior with murals. More than 400 artists worked tirelessly for months, often without any pay, to finish most of their work by Christmas.Officially, no public money has been spent to rebuild the cathedral. But the federal and Moscow city government led by the city's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, devised a system, according to the Russian press, in which businesses were forced to donate money and materials for the construction. The process was also plagued by multiple controversies between architects and artists about the techniques used for the reconstruction. While the cost of reconstruction was originally estimated to be about US$150 million, officials have said that the final price tag has reached $500 million.Patriarch Alexei conducted the preliminary consecration of the cathedral on December 31, but there will be no regular services until August when the finishing touches have been made to the interior, and after a grand consecration service which is being planned as the culmination of the Russian Orthodox Church's millennium celebrations. In a television interview broadcast on Orthodox Christmas Eve, Patriarch Alexei said that during the past decade he had "successfully" managed to build a radically new type of relationship between the church and the state, in which the church was independent of the state, but was respected and willing to cooperate with the government for the sake of the people."There has never been such a relationship in the 1,000 years of our history," the patriarch said. While some Orthodox activists have argued that the church should again become the state religion, Patriarch Alexei II reiterated his position that it would be wrong and "harmful" for the church. "We know what it leads to," the patriarch said. "The church inevitably turns into a government structure."Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.
As mentioned in yesterday's weblog, Saturday's Financial Times also took note of Putin's recent interest in religion, especially for its potential in strengthen[ing] mutual understanding and concord within our society and [supporting] the spiritual and moral revival of the Fatherland."The ABCNews profile of Putin notes that his official biography, released by the Kremlin, includes a mere four lines of chronological information, with a gap between 1975 and 1996 (The ABCNews profile also links to recent stories about Putin).Other profiles of Putin can be found at News Unlimited, the BBC, and the New York Times. Yahoo's full coverage area offers daily coverage of Putin and Russia, including recent news stories, related Web sites, audio and video clips, message boards, and other resources.
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