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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church Reunites After 80 Years

APPutin kissing an icon presented to him by the patriarch during a service at Christ the Savior Cathedral on Thursday.
Bells pealed and heavy incense wafted through the air as Russian Orthodox leaders signed a pact Thursday to heal an 80-year rift between their two churches.

"Joy lights up our hearts. A historic event awaited for many years has been fulfilled," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II told thousands of worshipers in the Christ the Savior Cathedral.

"The first word that Christ said to His followers when he rose from the dead was 'Rejoice!' and the second word he said was 'Peace be with you!'" said Metropolitan Laurus, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. "On this festive day we hear both of these greetings."

Alexy II then turned to President Vladimir Putin and said the president had made an important contribution to Thursday's reunification when he passed to Laurus an invitation from the patriarch to visit Moscow in 2003.

The patriarch presented to Putin several icons depicting the Virgin Mary and Russians who suffered for their beliefs during Soviet repressions. Putin bent over to kiss the icons in Alexy's hands, to the patriarch's evident delight.

Afterward, Alexy kissed Putin on the cheeks three times and thanked him for attending the service, saying this should indicate to the Orthodox church abroad that the president was not "some God fighter" but an Orthodox believer.

Putin praised the reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate with the church abroad as an event of worldwide significance. "There were no winners in this ecclesiastical and political conflict. Everyone was a loser, so reunification serves our common goals," he said.

Putin said the location of the ceremony, Christ the Savior Cathedral, was "a symbol of the renaissance and prosperity of the Orthodox church." The enormous golden-domed cathedral, built in the 1990s, is a replica of a similar cathedral demolished by Stalin in 1931.

The reunification agreement, called the Canonical Communion Act, will allow the church abroad to retain independence in pastoral, administrative, property and civil matters, but it will have to consult the Moscow Patriarchate on major administrative issues such as the election of senior clergy and the opening and closing of dioceses.

Thursday's ceremony was attended by many government officials, including Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, and State Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska.

Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who also was present, said the event was filled with spiritual and political significance that contributed to the "understanding of the significance and power of the Russian Orthodox spirit," Interfax reported.

The split occurred three years after the Revolution when representatives of the church abroad met in Yugoslavia and called on the church in Russia to resist the Bolsheviks and bring back the monarchy. The church abroad cut all ties in 1927 after Patriarch Sergy declared loyalty to the Communist government. The Moscow Patriarchate has said Sergy wanted to save the church from annihilation.

The Moscow Patriarchate disavowed Sergy's declaration last year, paving the way for Thursday's reconciliation.

But differences remain, and many members of the church abroad believe that the signing should have been delayed. "The main protest against the reunification is coming from parishes in South America, but there are dissenters in the United States, Canada and Europe as well," said Nikolai Savchenko, a priest with the church abroad, Kommersant reported Wednesday.

Savchenko put the number of dissenters at 20 percent to 25 percent of the church's reported membership of 480,000 in about 400 parishes in 40 countries. The Moscow Patriarchate considers about two-thirds of Russia's population of 142 million members and has branches in other former Soviet republics.

A main argument that opponents of the reunification cite is the Moscow Patriarchate's membership in the International Church Council, a movement in favor of unification of all Christian churches, known as ecumenism.