The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church consecrated a prominent new church on Sunday near the Eiffel Tower.
Patriarch Kirill, a close ally of President Putin, led the elaborate sanctifying ceremony in the Saint Trinity Church on the banks of the Seine River, the gold-domed centerpiece of a €100 million complex owned by the Russian government that will include a cultural centre and a school.
The ceremony included the consecration of the altar, a procession around the grounds and the placing of relics, accompanied by an all-male choir and the rich smells of incense.
The Paris mayor, Russian model Natalia Vodianova, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife Svetlana and members of France’s large Russian community crowded into the invitation-only, high-security event in the imposing, block-shaped white church.
While it was primarily a religious event, it carried strong political overtones.
Putin championed the project for a new Russian church in Paris, which prompted criticism from rights groups when it was first approved in 2008, and new concerns as diplomatic relations soured in ensuing years. Putin played down suspicions that it would be used by Russian secret services to spy on sensitive government buildings and embassies in the surrounding neighbourhood.
The patriarch visit comes as some leading French and other European politicians argue for better relations with Russia after years of diplomatic tensions over Moscow’s role in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
Churchgoer Ekaterina Besse, a Russian living in Paris, welcomed the new church complex and expressed hope for a “thaw” in relations.
“We can see this is also a political gesture as much as a religious one,” she said.
In Russia — until 25 years ago an officially atheist state — the role of the church has grown under Putin, notably in its lobbying for traditional family policies and against homosexuality. Putin, who once explained the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine by noting that the prince of the ancient Kievan Russian state was baptized there more than 1,000 years ago, has publicly supported conservative Christian groups, arguing that Western liberal values are alien to Russians.
The Russian patriarch thanked France for allowing the construction of the “magnificent” Paris site. In meetings with Russian emigres, he warned that it’s “dangerous” for them to lose their loyalty to Russia.
“It’s your duty. You can live wherever you want, but you cannot break spiritual and cultural ties with your people,” he said.
Patriarch Kirill meets on Monday with French President Francois Hollande, a critic of Russia’s support for both Syrian President Bashar Assad and separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Putin was meant to inaugurate the Paris church complex in October, but cancelled his trip amid French anger at Russia’s bombing of civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo.