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MOSCOW (Reuters) - A set of church bells rang out for the first time on Friday after being returned to Moscow's oldest monastery from the United States nearly 80 years after they were sold off as scrap under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
The Soviet authorities stripped 18 bells from the Danilov monastery as part of a campaign against religion and put them up for sale.
U.S. industrialist Charles Crane saved them from being melted down and donated them to Harvard University, where they hung in a tower for decades.
The bells' return, sponsored by a billionaire Russian tycoon, has been presented as a powerful symbol of the Kremlin's drive to revive Orthodox traditions which were smashed by the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet rule.
It was also a rare bright spot in relations between Russia and the United States, chilled by Moscow's military intervention in pro-Western Georgia.
"The bells, which were in forced exile for more than 80 years, have returned," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II said after blessing them. "We thank all those who preserved them in these difficult years.
"The monastery bells will again call believers to prayer and will tell them about the beauty of Orthodox church services and Orthodox traditions. They will call people to peace," he said.
President Dmitry Medvedev rang the bells three times, followed by billionaire businessman Viktor Vekselberg, who sponsored the operation to recover them and cast replicas for Harvard after years of negotiation with the university.
In 2007 the replicas were consecrated at a ceremony in Moscow and shipped to the United States, and the first original bell was returned to Moscow.
"The success of the project was possible because the efforts of the state, church and society were united both inside our country and abroad," Vekselberg said in a speech at the monastery.
Reporting by Denis Dyomkin; Writing by Conor Sweeney and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Roche