Over a thousand people rallied in Russia's Saint-Petersburg Saturday to protest the decision by authorities to hand over the city's famous St. Isaac's cathedral to the Orthodox Church.
The crowd of about 1,500 was the biggest showing yet to oppose giving the cathedral, a popular tourist attraction owned by the city, to the Church, saying it would rob the municipality of needed revenue.
The imposing 19th-century St Isaac's Cathedral on the main street Nevsky Prospekt functions as a museum, gallery and concert hall, and is also used for religious services.
‘The Church has claimed too much in recent years. Russia is a secular state,’ said 37-year-old resident, Filipp Gotfrid.
Proponents of the handover, which was decided by the city's governor earlier this month without public debate, say it would be justice served after the long Soviet-era campaign to raze or repurpose churches.
About 100 people from nationalist group National Liberation Movement, which is known for sometimes violent rallies and actions protecting ‘traditional’ and religious values, gathered not far from the protest, brandishing slogans like ‘a church is a place of worship’.
Saint-Petersburg is one of few places in Russia where members of the Kremlin's political opposition were elected into local parliament, and Saturday's gathering was called by the liberal Yabloko party, as part of a wider campaign against the handover.
‘It's not a question of faith, it's a question of money,’ said Yabloko MP Boris Vishnevsky.
Protester Tatiana Tsenkovskaya echoed: ‘the money earned by the cathedral was the city's, but now it will be for the church. It's not fair.’
The campaign was backed by key cultural figures, notably the director of the State Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, who sent a letter to Russian Patriarch Kirill Thursday asking him to delay the handover to cool tensions in the city.
A pause in the procedure would ‘stop the public conflict and allow to find the wisest and most just solution,’ the letter said, according to a museum statement.
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