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BUCHAREST, Romania – Tens of thousands of Romanians gathered Sunday for the blessing of a grandiose Orthodox cathedral consecrated to mark 100 years since modern-day Romania was created in the aftermath of World War I.
Believers from all over the country and beyond stood outside the "Salvation of the People" cathedral to watch the service transmitted on giant screens on a misty morning in the capital.
The Ecumenical Istanbul-based patriarch Bartholomew I and Romanian Patriarch Daniel led the service, broadcast live on television, joined by 100 priests dressed in white and gold cassocks.
The 120-meter (394-feet) high cathedral towers over a giant palace nearby built by late Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. Six bells rang out after the blessing.
The church says the unfinished building has cost 110 million euros ($125 million), three-quarters of which was public money. Critics say the money would have been better spent on churches and hospitals. The state pays priests' salaries and for church building maintenance.
Some 86 percent of Romanians are believers in the Orthodox church, which enjoyed a revival after communism ended in 1989. But its popularity has declined in recent years, particularly in cities.
Builder Constantin Dumitrescu, 47, an Orthodox believer, said he believed the cathedral was "a much too big investment for a poor country."
Building work began on the neo-Byzantine structure in 2010. It was voted Romania's most kitsch architectural structure in Romania in a 2017 online survey.
The cathedral aims to "honor Romanian heroes of all times." Romania's King Carol I passed a law for the cathedral to be built in 1884, but two world wars and decades of communism meant it never happened.
A group of ethnic Romanians from Ukraine dressed in colorful popular costume also attended the event.
"This is our faith, our soul," said Elena Nandris, mayor of the southern Ukrainian village of Mahala, with tears in her eyes. "This is a once in a lifetime event."