As Russians Prepare to Elect New President Putin Shows Interest in Religion

As acting president suspends Chechenya campaign for Christmas and Ramadan, Russian Orthodox Church sees new church-state relationship.

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 ...

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