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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Patriarch's Jubilee Draws Crowd of Well-Wishers

Russians from President Boris Yeltsin to ballet dancers and from lavishly dressed ladies to bewildered provincial priests paid homage Friday to Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose 70th birthday celebrations showed the church's newly found role as one of nation's central institutions.

The patriarch does not turn 70 until Tuesday, and his name day, when the church usually honors its leader, is two days later. But this year these dates fall on the first week of the Lent, and the church decided to hold his jubilee earlier.

Yeltsin paid a visit to the patriarch's residence Friday and presented him with Russia's newly instituted top award - the Order of Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called - and a set of silver dishes.

"Seventy years is not much yet," Yeltsin, 68, said in greeting the patriarch. In response, the church leader wished Yeltsin good health.

Television cameras caught an interesting exchange between the leaders of Russia's church and state. "If God commands you to transfer the reins of government, that has to be done in a democratic way, as in a civilized state," the patriarch said. "Only that way!" Yeltsin replied.

Later in the day, the patriarch appeared, the heavy decorations of the new order on his neck, in the royal booth of the Bolshoi Theater for an afternoon of lofty, if sometimes clumsy, greetings from Russian government leaders and other dignitaries, alternated with musical offerings from choirs, orchestras, happy children, noted singers and young ballet dancers. Speakers included Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, deputy speaker of the Federation Council Oleg Korolyov and the head of the Constitutional Court, Marat Baglai.

"For Russia, the Orthodox Church has not simply been one of religious confessions," said Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. "It has always had a nation-building role, responding to all the problems that came to our motherland."

The patriarch brought the four-hour celebration to a close on a more contemplative note.

"We have to bow lowly before our long-suffering and hard-working people," he said. Then his voice trembled: "I promise that I will carry out my service until the last breath, loving our fatherland and loving our kind, patient and honest people."