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1 Mar, 2009 19:48

Goodwill gesture: Italy returns church to Russia

Italy is returning to Russia ownership of an Orthodox church in its southern city of Bari. This is seen as a goodwill gesture towards Moscow and the Orthodox faithful.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travelled to Italy for the hand-over ceremony where he received the keys to the church from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

The return of the church seeks to boost ties between the two countries as well as improve the often tense Roman Catholic–Russian Orthodox relations.

It is also expected to boost tourism to Bari, bringing more pilgrims.

Russian pilgrims flock to Italy over Orthodox Saint’s remains

The small southern Italian town of Bari has become increasingly popular among many Russians, not only for its warm climate, but also because of religion, as it holds the relics of the Orthodox saint – St. Nicholas.

Podvorye, one of the most venerated sites in Russian Orthodoxy, is to be handed back to the Church. Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev will be present at the ceremony in Bari on Sunday.

Kirill Mireysky has been organizing pilgrimage trips from Russia to Bari for nearly a decade. He says around 5,000 pilgrims visit annually. This year is not expected to be any different, despite the global economic crisis.

“The crisis doesn’t stop people from coming here. For the pilgrims visiting the remains of a saint is more important than anything. Some people even come here by foot,” Kirill Mireysky said.

The remains are of St. Nicholas – one of the best-loved saints among believers in Russia. For centuries they have been resting at a cathedral in Bari. Ever since that time Russians have been coming to see them.

The construction of the area, known as a ‘Podvorye’ by the Russian Orthodox Church, began in the first half of the 20th century. The total area of the Podvorye is around 8,000 square metres.

It was to provide them with a place to stay and an Orthodox Christian cathedral, but instead the premises ended up being passed over to the Italian authorities and used in completely different ways.

“The Podvorye had no time to act properly because of the First World War. It was converted into a hospital and given to the Italian Red Cross. Also, many believers were killed after the revolution, so there was no chance to take care of the Podvorye,” Sergey Chapnin editor of Tserkovny Vestnik Orthodox newspaper, said.

The agreement to return the premises to Russia was reached in 2007. And now it’s time for the dreams of many Russian pilgrims to come true.

“The Podvorye of the Russian Orthodox Church will first be passed over to Russian authorities, and after all the legal work is complete it will be given to the Russian Orthodox Church. It used to belong to Russia and is holy for all Orthodox Christians,” Vladimir Kozhin from Presidential Property Management Department said.

Experts say there are three major places where Russian pilgrims go to pray abroad: The Holy Land, Greece and Bari. And they believe there’s nothing better than feeling at home when focusing on spirituality.

“From now on our Pilgrims will be able to come to Bari and feel at home. They won’t have to bother about anything and will be able to concentrate only on their prayers,” said priest Father Vladimir.