Medvedev Heading to Italy To Pick Up Keys to Church

President Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday will stop in Bari, in southern Italy, where Italian President Giorgio Napolitano is expected to hand over the keys to a Russian Orthodox Church complex that has belonged to Italy for decades.

Italy first promised to give the complex to Russia in March 2007, during a visit of then-President Vladimir Putin.

The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church complex was the initiative of the Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna Romanova, constructed between 1913 and 1917 on funds donated by Tsar Nicholas II and other Orthodox pilgrims to Bari.

The keys will be handed over on St. Nicholas' Day, a holiday honoring the saint, who is important in both Orthodox and Catholic traditions and whose relics are kept near the complex.

The church was built in Pskov-Novgorodian style by architect Alexei Shchusev, who went on to construct the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square in 1924.

The church, pilgrims' quarters and garden are located on an 8,000-square-meter site, which was "forcibly sold" to the local fascist government of Bari in the 1930s, said Fr. Vladimir Kuchumov, the church priest.

The new owners allowed religious services to continue in the church, but the pilgrims' quarters, a two-story building that housed visitors from Russia, was turned into city government offices.

The Italian government is giving it away to Russia now after having purchased it from Bari in April, Kuchumov said. It will now be owned by the Russian government but may eventually be rented out to the Russian Orthodox Church, Kuchumov said.