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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Makes Pilgrimage to Greece

APPresident Putin kissing an icon while visiting the Mount Athos monastic community in northern Greece on Friday.
KARYES, Greece -- President Vladimir Putin made a private pilgrimage Friday to the 1,000-year-old monastic community of Mount Athos, the first Russian head of state ever to set foot in a place regarded as the cradle of Orthodox Christianity.

Putin visited a number of monasteries in the all-male, autonomous sanctuary located on a craggy peninsula in northern Greece. He then flew back to Moscow after driving to the northern port of Thessaloniki.

"I am grateful for the opportunity you gave me to visit the Holy Mountain," Putin told the peninsula's 20 abbots at a welcoming ceremony in Karyes, the medieval community's capital.

"This is a very special place for Orthodox Christians and the whole Christian world. In Russia, we always held the monks who lived here in great admiration and respect."

Dressed in a black suit and shirt, Putin visited the 10th-century Iviron Monastery to view the icon of the Virgin Portaitissa. According to Orthodox tradition, Iviron monks sent a copy of the icon -- the original is thought to date to the ninth century -- to Moscow in the mid-17th century to help cure the sick daughter of Tsar Alexei I.

Putin, using a jeep to tour the peninsula, which has only dirt tracks and paths, then visited the 18th-century monastery of St. Panteleimon, which houses Russian monks.

He had planned to visit last year, but canceled following the Sept. 1-3 Beslan school attack. A December 2001 visit was canceled due to bad weather.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it was the first time a Russian head of state has visited the community, where more than 1,500 monks live and where women are banned.

"I know that the Russian president has long wanted to visit Mount Athos. This is his private pilgrimage," said Father Nikolai Balashov, a spokesman for the department for relations with other Orthodox churches.

Starting in 1845, grand dukes from the Russian imperial family visited on several occasions. The last visit was made in June 1867 by Grand Duke Alexei, son of Tsar Alexander II.

Mount Athos, which is part of Greece but is autonomous, is administered by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity who is based in Istanbul.

The links between the Russian Orthodox Church and Mount Athos date from the Byzantine Empire and the spread of Christianity through eastern Europe more than 1,000 years ago.

The first great Russian monasteries, including 11th-century caves near Kiev, were inspired by the spiritual traditions of Mount Athos. The Russian role on the peninsula -- and as the guardian of Orthodoxy -- continued to rise during the four centuries of Ottoman control of Greece, which ended in the 1820s.

Although Russian influence on Athos began to wane after Greek independence, the monastic community continued to draw prominent Russian pilgrims such as Grigory Rasputin, the mystic monk who became part of Tsar Nicholas II's court and is often linked to helping bring down the monarchy.

Putin's trip is also seen as a bid to reclaim the Russian character of the Panteleimon monastery, which has been coming under the influence of Ukrainian clerics in recent years.