BUTOVO, Russia (Reuters) - The Russian Orthodox Church consecrated a temple on Saturday at a site of mass Stalinist executions in a symbolic act of unity after an 80-year rift between the mother church and a rival faction.
Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Metropolitan Laurus, the New York-based leader of the Orthodox Church Abroad, attended the emotional liturgy at the Temple Of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia.
At a secluded military testing site south of Moscow, still surrounded by a fence and barbed wire, tens of thousands of people including many prominent clergymen were mown down by firing squads in the Soviet era repressions of the 1930-50s.
Alexiy II and Laurus, who signed a church reunification act this week, laid the groundwork three years ago for the temple in this quiet village.
“We are united by the prayers of the martyrs and confessors. Tens of thousands were killed for their faith and truth,” Alexiy II said.
Russian exiles who supported Tsar Nicholas II and opposed the communists set up the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia after losing the 1920s civil war. They set up a headquarters in Serbia but later moved to New York.
“We beseech in our prayers, ‘May the blessing of the saint spirit shed on this sacred place’ ... and we implore, ‘May this temple stand for eternity, and may all tempests and troubles bypass it’,” Alexiy II said.
Alexiy II calls Butovo “Russia’s Golgotha”, drawing an analogy with the hill where Jesus Christ carried the cross for his crucifixion.
The nearby ravines hold the bodies of more than 200 Orthodox priests and believers canonized in recent years, making the former shooting range Russia’s biggest shrine.
Some 21,000 people, including about 1,000 Orthodox priests, were executed in Butovo in just one brief period of communist repressions between August 1937 and October 1938, according to historians citing files of the Soviet-era KGB secret police.
It is unclear how many people were killed in total before executions stopped in 1953.
Witnesses said “enemies of the people” were brought to the shooting range in food vans marked as “Meat”. Shootings went on non-stop day and night in the later stages.
“Today’s event is the final act of our church unification,” said Anatoly, father superior of a Moscow church.
Father John Townsend, serving a parish in the U.S. state of Georgia, said: “It’s just such a beautiful moment to come here and honor these martyrs, and to do it at the same time and at the same church.”
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