ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Protesters rallied in St. Petersburg on Saturday against plans by the city authorities to give a landmark cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church amid an increasingly passionate debate over the relationship between the church and the Russian state.
"We won't give St. Isaac's to the church. We want to save it as a museum," Boris Vishnevsky, a local lawmaker, told protesters in central St. Petersburg.
St. Isaac's, one of the most visited tourist sites in Russia's old imperial capital, has been a museum since 1917. Some experts are concerned that when it gains ownership, the Orthodox Church will neglect the exhibits on display, which include a rare Foucault pendulum.
The rally Saturday by over 2,000 people was significantly larger than a similar demonstration by several hundred people earlier this month.
"St. Isaac's Cathedral is part of our cultural heritage. There are so many valuable exhibits that require the work of museum specialists. The Russian Orthodox Church does not have those specialists," said Irina Azbel, 43, a doctor among those protesting.
A few dozen counter-protesters gathered in the same place to support the plans.
"The return of the cathedral to the church is a return to our national roots," said Yelena Semyonova, a 52-year-old professor.
The announcement earlier this month that the neoclassical St. Isaac's Cathedral, which is currently a museum, will be put under Orthodox Church ownership has sparked a backlash from city residents. More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the city authorities to reconsider.
Prominent cultural figures, including the director of St. Petersburg's world-renowned Hermitage Museum, have criticized the decision.
The handover has been seen as indicative of the growing power of the Orthodox Church and part of a trend of social conservatism in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has appealed to traditional values as opposed to Western liberalism to help tighten his grip on society.