Russia cathedral protests expose church role tensions

Yekaterinburg (Russia) (AFP)


Thousands of people protested for a third straight day Wednesday plans for a new cathedral in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg in a case exposing tensions over the growing authority of the Orthodox Church.

Police made more than 20 arrests after clashes with protesters in the central park where the building is set to be erected, according to local media and an AFP correspondent at the scene.

The Church wants to recreate a cathedral demolished by the Soviets in 1930 in one of the few green public spaces in the Urals city, some 1,000 miles (1,700 km) east of Moscow.

Local authorities have backed the project, and the oligarch head of one of Russia's largest copper producers has also offered financial support.

Demonstrators told AFP they were fighting to protect a valued leisure area in a city that was originally designed as an industrial hub.

But the protests have also taken on a wider political significance in a country where the Church, far from its Soviet-era repression, has ever more political clout.

President Vladimir Putin has embraced the moral authority offered by the Church over his two-decade rule and Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill is seen as a key ally of the Kremlin.

- 'Our common space' -

Many were angered when they found that a large swathe of the green zone had been fenced off to prepare for the cathedral construction on Monday morning.

"This is our common space, it belongs to all the people of this city," said Alexei Mosin, a 62-year-old historian who took part in the protests.

He decried authorities for "making a decision without us".

"This is where people who live in the area can walk and it is free, where children ride bicycles, where we run and do yoga," another protester, 35-year-old Alyona Smyshlyaeva, told AFP.

Anger boiled over on Tuesday, when some 2,000 activists toppled a fence around the construction site and clashed with security guards.

They also faced martial arts enthusiasts, linked to an investor in the project, who were brought in to protect the site.

While protests against planned new Orthodox churches are not uncommon in Russian cities, including the capital Moscow, they rarely lead to open clashes.

The Kremlin defended local authorities Wednesday, saying they had consulted locals on the project, which demonstrators deny.

- 'Not a casino or brothel' -

Regional governor Yevgeny Kuivashev responded to the protests by holding an emergency meeting behind closed doors with representatives of the Church and activists.

But demonstrators dismissed the talks as a back-handed attempt with no chance for a compromise, with authorities and the church insisting the cathedral will be built.

Russian opposition politicians have rallied around the Yekaterinburg protesters.

Independent media have meanwhile painted the stand-off as a fresh illustration of the rift between Russia's liberals and conservatives.

"The church is seen as a branch of the authorities," said Andrei Desnitsky, an independent religion expert.

He added that while there have been conflicts over the growing role of the church in other Russian cities, in Yekaterinburg there is particular tension between the church and the local secular intelligentsia.

The city also has a special significance for the church, which built a monastery on the site on the outskirts of the city where the Bolsheviks murdered Russia's last Tsar Nicholas II.

In recent years Russia has seen an increase in religion taught in schools, church officials taking part in state celebrations and new controversial laws criminalising offending religious beliefs.

The diocese of Yekaterinburg said the cathedral construction was legal and its completion in 2023 would be a "historic event."

"There is no legal or logical reason to stop the construction," said Maxim Minyailo, a senior priest from Yekaterinburg's main Church on the Blood.

"We want to build a cathedral -- not a casino, a brothel or a dump," Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, wrote on Facebook.