November 19, 2007 / 5:40 PM / 12 years ago

Putin promises support to Russian Orthodox Church

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin promised on Monday further strong state support for the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, urging believers to be active in crucial elections in December and March.

Putin, an ex-KGB spy who now portrays himself as a devout Christian, met top Orthodox clergy in the gilded St Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace to mark 90 years since the post of Patriarch was revived in the year of the revolution.

“Orthodoxy has always had a special role in shaping our statehood, our culture, our morals,” Putin told dozens of high-ranking black-robed priests led by Patriarch Alexiy II.

The church, closely integrated with the state since the 10th century, won back its autonomy from royal control under the Communists, but suffered intense persecution.

The fall of Communism in 1991 led to a strong revival, aided by state support, the return of property and considerable tax benefits.

Parliamentary elections on December 2 are broadly seen as a dress rehearsal of March 2 presidential polls in which Putin’s successor will be elected.

The main pro-Kremlin party United Russia is expected to score an overwhelming victory in December to give Putin a stronger hand to maintain political influence after his departure.

But analysts and pollsters warn that the highly predictable outcome could discourage many people from going to polls. Putin, who needs an impressive victory for the party, uses every opportunity to rally any support which could raise turnout.

“We are nearing parliamentary elections which will have a big impact on stability and on chances to continue positive changes,” said Putin, who has presided over eight years of strong economic growth.

“I am sure the Orthodox Christians like other citizens will show strong activity.”

State support for the church has grown even stronger under Putin as Russia has turned away from Western-style liberalism of the first post-Soviet decade to traditional values.

“We highly appreciate the church’s striving to revive in Russian society ideals and values which have for ages served us as moral guidelines,” Putin told the priests.

The church says 80 percent of Russians are its members.

The post of Patriarch, revived by the Communists, had been abolished in 1700 by emperor Peter the Great, who reserved the leadership of the church for tsars for more than 200 years.

oleg.shchedrov@reuters.com; +7 495 775 1242; Reuters Messaging: oleg.shchedrov.reuters.com@reuters.net; edited by Richard Meares

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