Russia: religious and political tensions around a cathedral project

Demonstrations, clashes, arrests … The construction of a cathedral in Ekaterinburg, a Russian city of the Urals, arouses a strong arm-wrestling between opponents and promoters of the project, highlighting the power gained in Russia by the Orthodox Church .

Since the beginning of the week, hundreds or even thousands of protestors protest daily on the site planned for this project.

Rare enough for a Russian provincial city, this movement is seen as a new illustration of the tensions due to the growing influence of conservative and religious circles to the detriment of the liberals, seven years after the "punk prayer" of the protest group Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

According to an AFP journalist, on Wednesday, the police made new arrests on the site of this future construction site, in the center of this industrial city of 1.4 million inhabitants, where about 300 people were demonstrating.

At the origin of the protests that gathered up to 2,000 people: Monday installation of a fence in a park in the center of Yekaterinburg. The place is to house by 2023 an imposing 66-meter orthodox cathedral, which reproduces a church destroyed by the Soviets in 1930.

In the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, about twenty people had already been arrested, according to local authorities quoted by the Russian media. They also reported some minor injuries in clashes with big arms identified as members of a boxing school attached to the business of a businessman who funds the cathedral.

– Jogging and yoga –

Started nine years ago, the project has since been controversial in this industrial city with a strong liberal tradition: Boris Yeltsin built his political career and it was until recently one of the few in Russia led by a critical mayor of the Kremlin.

"This is the only green space in the area where people can walk around freely, without barriers, children can ride a bike, run or do yoga," AFP spokeswoman Aliona Smychlaieva told AFP. years. "We should not give up a single meter of this space."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended the local authorities, saying they had consulted the population on the project, which the demonstrators deny.

On Tuesday, the governor of the region held an emergency meeting between opponents and religious leaders, without ending the movement.

Beyond the issues of religion and urbanism, the conflict took a political turn, the liberal opposition, including Alexei Navalny, rallying to the protesters

– Alliance with the Kremlin –

"The Church is seen as another branch of the authorities," said Andrei Desnitski, a specialist in religious issues interviewed by AFP. "People realize that it is more present in their lives: at school, in official celebrations where religious are always present, or with the law against offenses against religious beliefs".

For the expert Roman Lounkin, the controversy has grown because the liberal opposition "found it useful to use the Church to show his position vis-à-vis the authorities."

The alliance between the power and the Orthodox Church was strongly strengthened under Vladimir Putin and is regularly illustrated in the public media by the grand opening of new Orthodox churches.

Recently, the Ministry of Defense announced the construction near Moscow of a cathedral, color camouflage, in honor of the armed forces.

The controversy of Yekaterinburg also refers to the history of this city, famous for being the place of execution of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family in 1918. A church in the Urals capital is dedicated to the memory of the Romanovs who became, since the end of the USSR, the object of a cult of the Orthodox Church.

"Yekaterinburg is the site of many tensions between the Church and the local intelligentsia, an industrial city whose intellectual elite, formed during the Soviet era, has very secular positions," said Andrei Desnitsky. . "They grew up in a city where there were hardly any churches."

The lack of places of worship, many of which were razed during the Soviet period, is one of the Church's arguments for the construction of buildings.

"We are building a cathedral, not a casino, a brothel or a rubbish dump," spokesman for the Orthodox Church Vladimir Legoïda told Facebook.

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