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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bells Ring as Christians Greet Easter

Russians celebrated Easter Sunday with services in Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches and family visits to cemeteries, where they cleared their departed relatives' graves from winter debris in an annual rite of spring.

Shortly before midnight, the bells of the Christ the Savior Cathedral rang out, followed by bell-ringing in hundreds of smaller Orthodox churches and monasteries in the capital. Patriarch Alexy II presided over the first Easter service in the cathedral since its reconstruction and reconsecration last year, following its destruction under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Top politicians and foreign diplomats crowded the cathedral, packed shoulder to shoulder with worshipers. President Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, stood in a place of honor near the main altar.

Alexy praised Putin for his trip to Chechnya on Saturday to show support for troops fighting rebels there, and wished him God's help "in the difficult task of serving Russia and its people, who place their hopes in you and love you," Interfax reported.

Putin sent separate Easter greetings to Russia's Orthodox and to the small Catholic minority, and noted that it was the first time in 11 years that all the world's Christians had observed the holiday on the same day.

"It is wonderful that in the first year of the third millennium, this joyous holiday is observed together by Orthodox Christians and the followers of other Christian faiths," Putin was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying in a statement. "I am positive that the current Easter celebration will strengthen understanding between people, and promote the world's interconfessional and public accord."

A test of that ecumenical spirit will come in June, when Pope John Paul II is scheduled to visit Ukraine. Alexy has said repeatedly he would not meet with the pope because of Catholic missionary activity in Russia and Ukraine and property disputes between Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine. Other Russian Orthodox clerics have vehemently objected to the papal visit to Ukraine, where Orthodox are in the majority.

In Moscow and other cities, authorities provided free transportation to cemeteries so that people could clean their relatives' grave sites, paint small fences surrounding them, and lay fresh flowers.

The practice dates back to the Soviet era, when religious observance was discouraged and a competing Easter tradition was born.