Church bells pealed as leaders of the Russian Orthodox faith signed a pact Thursday healing a historic, 80-year schism between the church in Russia and an offshoot set up abroad after the Bolshevik Revolution.
After a choir sang hymns, Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, leader of the main Russian Orthodox Church, led the ceremony with a sermon praising the end of the formal division.
''Joy illuminates our hearts,'' Alexy said, addressing worshippers in the vast Christ the Savior Cathedral. ''A historic event awaited for long, long years has occurred. The unity of the Russian church is restored.''
Alexy later signed the reunion agreement with Metropolitan Laurus, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Worshippers wept and incense wafted up into the cathedral's soaring cupola.
Later in the ceremony, also attended by leaders of church and state, Alexy formally signed the reunion agreement with Metropolitan Laurus, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
President Vladimir Putin joined the celebration, broadcast live on television. Alexy thanked him for helping end the split by meeting with leaders of the church abroad.
''They saw in you a man devoted to Russia, and it was very important to them after decades of repression,'' Alexy said. The patriarch presented Putin with a set of icons.
In remarks reflecting centuries of pre-Soviet tradition of a close relationship between the dominant Orthodox church and Russia's rulers, Putin told the congregation that the agreement was ''a nationwide event of an historic scale and of vast moral importance.''
''The church division resulted from a deep political split of the Russian society,'' and ending the rift was a step toward healing society's divisions, he said.
Worshippers and white-robed clergy packed the Christ the Savior Cathedral, symbolic of Russia's rejection of its Communist past, when atheism was state doctrine and many believers were arrested and imprisoned.
''We came to celebrate the holiday, and because our church is finally reunited,'' said Zinaida Yushinskaya, 70, a retired geologist who said she was reprimanded for wearing a cross in the Soviet era and would have been fired for worshipping openly. She called the pact part of a revival of ''the millennium-old tradition'' of Russian Orthodoxy. ''It's in our genes,'' she said.
The ornate white cathedral, with its shimmering gold domes on the Moscow River, is a replica built in the 1990s to replace the original, which was blown up in 1931 under orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
''In 1917 a tragedy began the division of the church, the division of the people,'' said Vladimir Tenekov, one of thousands who waited in intermittent rain to attend the ceremony. ''Now the opposite is happening. The church and the people are being unified. Such a thing only happens once in a century, or many centuries.''
The church abroad split from the Moscow Patriarchate three years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution amid the country's civil war, and cut all ties in 1927 after the leader of the church in Russia, Patriarch Sergiy, declared loyalty to the Communist government.
The Russian Orthodox Church said that Sergiy hoped to save the church from annihilation, but the breakaway group regarded the decision as a betrayal and saw itself as the true protector of the faith.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the two churches began discussions of reunification. The Moscow Patriarchate last year disavowed Sergiy's declaration, setting the stage for Thursday's reconciliation.
Laurus has said that the reunion pact signed Thursday called the Canonical Communion Act does not mark a merger, and that his branch would maintain administrative control over its 400-plus parishes worldwide. The New York-based church reports 480,000 U.S. members.
The Moscow Patriarchate, meanwhile, counts about two-thirds of Russia's population of 142 million as members. There are also, the church says, millions more believers in the other former Soviet republics.
Under the pact, each church will maintain its own leaders and council of bishops, with high-level appointments in the church abroad subject to approval in Moscow. But their clergy would be able to lead services, and their parishioners to take communion in both churches.
''We will pray together even if we are at different ends of the Earth,'' Archbishop Mark of the church abroad said. ''The prayer of a person in a Russian village will be linked with the prayer of a believer in America or Australia.''
For leaders of the faith, Thursday marked the real end of the Bolshevik Revolution, which divided Russia's religious community along with the rest of society, said Andrei Zolotov, and expert on the church and chief editor of Russia Profile magazine.
He said it was the first time a schism in the sometimes fractious Russian Orthodox Church was ''being healed without saying one side was right and one side was wrong,'' Zolotov said, adding that the negotiations were difficult.
''There were times when it was hard to imagine that the reunification would occur,'' Alexy said Wednesday.
Analysts said while the pact would heal some divisions in the church, it could open others.
For example, some members of the church abroad felt the Moscow Patriarchate had not gone far enough in confronting its Communist-era cooperation with authorities, said Michael Bourdeaux, president of Britain's Keston Institute, which studies religious issues in the former Soviet Union.
''You heal one schism and you create another,'' he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Alexy stressed that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia would retain its property and financial independence, and predicted that its autonomy would not change ''in the foreseeable future.''
But ''maybe this will change in decades,'' he was quoted as saying this week by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia will retain its property and financial and administrative independence. Alexy predicted this week that its autonomy would not change in the foreseeable future but suggested a closer union could come eventually.
For many believers, the pact symbolized the church's resurrection after the Soviet era.
''We will be together, we will be closer to God,'' said Tatyana Melnikova, her faced framed by a headscarf, as she waited to enter the cathedral.
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