MOSCOW (AFP) – President Vladimir Putin praised close ties between the Kremlin and the powerful Orthodox Church as he hosted top Orthodox clergy from across the world Thursday to mark the 1025th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Russia.
Convening the heads and senior members of 15 Orthodox Churches for an unprecedented meeting at the Kremlin, Putin praised the moral authority of the Church as he seeks to strengthen his power following huge protests against his 13-year rule.
"It is important that relations between the state and the church are developing at a new level," Putin said in televised remarks, with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill by his side.
"We act as genuine partners and colleagues to solve the most pressing domestic and international tasks, to implement joint initiatives for the benefit of our country and people," he told the black-robed clerics.
Alongside Kirill, those present included Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, Theophilos III of Jerusalem and Ilia II of Georgia, the Kremlin said.
Also present were the heads of the Bulgarian, Serbian, Polish and Cypriot Orthodox Churches. Together they represented more than 227 million faithful.
Conspicuously, however, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I did not go to the meeting and was represented by a lower-ranking cleric.
The Russian Orthodox Church was suppressed under Communism but has staged an astonishing recovery in post-Soviet Russia to become one of the country's most powerful institutions.
Putin, an ex-KGB agent who has said his mother had him secretly christened in the Soviet Union, has enjoyed unstinting support from the Church throughout his years in power, including during the unprecedented protests that broke out in Moscow and other big cities in the winter of 2011.
Since returning to the presidency for a third term last year, Putin has been promoting an unflinchingly conservative agenda in a move aimed at cementing his support among blue-collar workers and elderly Russians, his core backers.
This summer Russia's parliament passed a law imposing jail terms of up to three years on those who offend religious believers.
The controversial bill was proposed after several members of rock band Pussy Riot belted out a "punk prayer" against Putin and his close ties with the Church last year.
Two Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, are now serving two years in a penal colony after being convicted last August on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
The Russian parliament also adopted a law imposing jail terms for people promoting homosexual "propaganda" to minors, while another recently adopted law bans gay and lesbian couples in foreign countries from adopting Russian children.
Putin said Thursday that the Church was giving Russians a moral compass when so many were looking for help.
"Today when people are once again searching for moral support, millions of our compatriots see it in religion," Putin said. "They trust the wise, pastoral word of the Russian Orthodox Church."
Historian Alexei Beglov said Putin was the first Russian leader to have convened so many heads of Orthodox Churches, calling the meeting a "political gesture."
But he said it was not appropriate to speak of the coalescence of church and state in Russia, noting Putin was simply using the Church to advance his political goals.
"Putin is trying to exploit the Orthodox religion to strengthen the authoritarian system," added Vladimir Oivin of credo.ru, an online portal writing about religion.
"The regime is wobbling, and they are looking at how to strengthen it."
Accompanied by Patriarch Kirill, Putin is set to travel to neighbouring Ukraine at the weekend to meet his counterpart Viktor Yanukovych and attend ceremonies marking the anniversary of Christianity.