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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Steps Away From Decision on Tsar's Bones

President Boris Yeltsin has instructed his Cabinet to make a final decision Friday on where and when the remains of the last Russian tsar and his family should be buried.

Yeltsin's order Tuesday runs counter to previous assertions that the president alone would have the final word, suggesting he may not want to bear personal responsibility for a decision so charged with symbolism.

The burial of Nicholas II is intended to be an act of national repentance to reconcile post-communist Russia with its pre-revolutionary past. Some monarchists and Russian Orthodox Church activists, however, have questioned whether the remains recovered in 1991 are authentic.

The government is to make its decision the day after the Holy Synod meets to determine the church's official position. Government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov said the opinion of the church will be taken into account.

A government commission formed in 1993 decided late last month to recognize the remains as authentic after a years-long investigation involving several DNA tests.

A majority of the commission members voted to bury the royal family in St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress on July 17 of this year -- 80 years after they were shot by a Bolshevik firing squad in Yekaterinburg.

First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who heads the commission, said earlier that Yeltsin would make a final decision based on the commission's report.

Although the president appears to accept the commission's findings, Shabdurasulov said Tuesday that Yeltsin has given the Cabinet the final say.

"I would definitely not say that everything is decided in advance and [the government session] will be just a formality," the spokesman said.

The choice of the burial spot is also a battleground. Yekaterinburg regional Governor Eduard Rossel and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov have argued strongly that their cities should be the final resting place of the last tsar and his family.

Shabdurasulov said St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, Rossel and Luzhkov will attend the government session Friday.

But first the Russian Orthodox Church will weigh in Thursday.

"It is not a coincidence that the Synod meets first and the government second," Shabdurasulov said.

The voice of the church is highly influential because the church will be central in the burial ceremony. In 1995 the Holy Synod refused to accept the government's decisions and the scheduled burial was put off.

The church, which is considering canonizing the royal family, is sharply divided on the identity of the remains. The Holy Synod's decision Thursday is hard to predict.

Metropolitan Yuvenali, who represents the church on the government commission, agreed to sign its report recognizing the authenticity of the remains. But he said that although it is difficult not to accept the current scientific evidence, in the future scientists may come to different conclusions. He placed all moral responsibility for the decision on scientists and investigators.

Patriarch Alexy II has given cautious hints that he may accept the commission's findings.

But in recent weeks church leaders have come under strong pressure from Russian emigre circles and the church's conservative branch in Russia not to accept the authenticity of the remains.

"We sincerely hope that the patriarch knows all the data [disproving the Russian government's findings], and he will make the right decision," said Peter Koltypin, head of the rival Russian emigre commission.

The Moscow-based newspaper Radonezh -- the mouthpiece of the Orthodox Church's conservative wing -- has argued against recognizing the government findings.

Metropolitan Vitali, leader of the New York-based breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which canonized Nicholas in 1981, told Radonezh that his church "will never accept" the remains as those of the royal family.

In Russia, many Orthodox Christians already revere Nicholas as a saint and largely believe the version of the White Army investigator Nikolai Sokolov. He came to the conclusion in the 1920s that the Romanovs' bodies were completely destroyed by fire and acid and could not be found.

They view the recent version with deep mistrust and consider it a creation of the Soviet secret services.

If the Russian Orthodox Church canonizes the Romanovs, their remains would be declared holy relics. Venerating false relics would be a sacrilege.

Shabdurasulov said the position of the church is essential because the burial has both "ethical and religious aspects."

If the government accepts the commission's findings and rules on the place and time of burial, Shabdurasulov said, another commission will be appointed to determine the procedure.