Alexy II listening to Putin as he addresses the special gathering of top Orthodox clergy in the Kremlin on Monday.
By Anna Smolchenko
At a Kremlin event Monday to commemorate an important anniversary for the Russian Orthodox Church, President Vladimir Putin said he hoped that Orthodox Christians would vote in the upcoming State Duma elections.
Putin, who will head the United Russia party ticket in the Dec. 2 elections, called on religious Russians to come to the polling stations.
"I am confident that Orthodox Christians, like other citizens, will again do their civic duty," he told more than 150 church leaders gathered in the gilded Kremlin halls.
The outcome of the elections, which are widely expected to strengthen United Russia's -- and Putin's -- position in power, will "directly determine the country's stable development and the continuity of those positive changes that have already entered our lives," he added.
Formally, Putin met with church hierachs from Russia, as well as Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate and discuss a number of church-state issues. Church leaders sought, however, to dissociate themselves from politics ahead of Monday's meeting.
Vladimir Vigilyansky, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, said before the meeting that the leaders came to discuss issues like state recognition of religious education and current regulations making priests eligible for mandatory military service.
"The Church distances itself from political struggle," said Vigilyansky. He conceded, however, that priests could be calling on their parishioners to vote for a particular party depending on their own political leanings, adding that he personally wanted Putin to remain in office for a third term.
After the event, the church officials were positive about the meeting with Putin and said there was no direct discussion of how Orthodox believers would or should vote. Varfolomei, Archbishop of Rovno and Ostrog, in Ukraine, said that during the meeting Patriarch Alexy II expressed his hope that Putin would continue his role as the country's leader.
Alexy also called for the establishment of a public council to oversee issues of morality in the mass media, saying that many television and radio programs promoted "vicious behavior."
Another church leader, Yevsevy, Archbishop of Pskov and Velikiye Luki, sidestepped a question about whether politics had been discussed, saying only that the leaders had talked of the need to "preserve the unity of the people."
Analysts have said Putin's move makes sense as he is trying to curry favor with a considerable chunk of electorate: The Orthodox Church claims some 125 million adherents in Russia.
After the meeting, Putin presented Alexy II with a fragment of what is considered to be one of the church's most precious relics -- the clothing believed to have been worn by Christ during or before the crucifixion. The fragment from the robe, held in a silver frame adorned with diamonds, has long been part of the Kremlin collection, but will now be kept at the Christ the Savior Cathedral.
A chief curator of the Kremlin museum, who declined to give her name because she said she was not authorised to speak to reporters, said the decision to give the relic to the church was made not long ago. She added that she was sorry to see it go because the history of the robe was inseparable from that of the Kremlin.