01/07/2010, 00.00
RUSSIA

Orthodox Christmas strengthens alliance between Putin and Patriarch Kirill

Church and state work closer together for a strong and united Russia. The government announces two billion rubles to restore holy places destroyed by Communism. The old Novodevichy Convent is set to be returned to the Church. Kirill blesses the actions by Putin and the government in tackling the economic crisis.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – More than 150 million Russian Orthodox Christians and 30,000 Russian Orthodox churches celebrated Christmas today around the world. In Moscow for the first time since he took over from the late Aleksij II, Patriarch Kirill celebrated Midnight Mass in the traditional Vigil liturgy in Saint Christ the Saviour Cathedral in the presence of 4,000 people, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas following the old Julian calendar, which is 13 days "behind" the Gregorian calendar adopted by the Catholic, Protestant and some Orthodox Churches as well as the secular world.

In Russia, 7 January also marks the end of the period of abstinence from eating meat and sweets and drinking alcoholic beverages that began on 28 November. It is also a national holiday, and a time when security forces are on maximum alert as a result of recent terrorist attacks around the world. Some 8,500 police agents have been deployed in the capital until tonight to ensure order and security.

Christmas is also a time when secular and religious worlds come together. For the past five years, this has meant growing ties between political and Church leaders. Both have used the occasion to tell the nation about their ever closer relationship for a stronger and more united Russia.

This year, in addition to the traditional exchange of wishes and thanks with the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Russian government gave the Church a special Christmas gift. In his meeting with the patriarch at the Danilov Monastery, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the government would provide RUB 2 billion (US$ 63 million) to restore holy sites, monasteries and churches destroyed during last century's atheist drive by the state against religion. He also said that the Novodevichy Convent, one of most beautiful and important in the country, would be returned to the Patriarchate before the end of the year.

Putin praised the Church for "educating citizens in a spirit of patriotism and love of country, passing on love for spiritual values and history." For his part, Kirill said that he hoped that the Lord would help Putin "in performing the high task God gave him." The patriarch also praised the prime minister for the way he managed the economic crisis, which has had a greater impact in Russia than elsewhere in the world.

In his message to the Orthodox community on Christmas Eve, Kirill stressed the "unity of Holy Russia". Going over the various trips he took in his first year as patriarch, he explained that it is through "the strength of faith in a multiethnic society" that transcend "ethnic and social differences" that Russia will be able to maintain "its spiritual unity" in today's world.

Funding to restore Christian sites and the return of properties seized from the Church in Soviet times are but the latest gift of the Kremlin to the Patriarchate. This year, Russia's Justice Ministry is set to present plans to amend the federal law on "Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations", which, if approved, would severely restrict the activities of certain religious communities, like Evangelical Christians.

In addition, the authorities plan to add religious education in public schools as well as chaplains paid by the state to the armed forces. It also appears possible that the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow will be granted the right to vet parliamentary bills before they go to the Duma.

This would indicate that now laws might have to be blessed before they are approved.

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