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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill asked Russians to pray for rain on Sunday as wildfires raged across the European parts of the vast country, sweltering since June in an unprecedented heat wave.
The hottest weather since records began 130 years ago has withered crops and pushed thousands of farmers to the verge of bankruptcy.
The Emergencies Ministry said that as of Sunday morning, 774 fires, including 369 that started since Saturday, were raging in an area totaling about 130,000 hectares (500 sq miles), about the size of the administrative area of the city of Los Angeles.
At least 28 people have died in wildfires in European Russia in the past few days, the ministry said and more than 5,200 people have been evacuated.
"Grief has come to our nation, human lives have been lost, hundreds have lost shelter and thousands have been left without sustenance, including many children," national media quoted Patriarch Kirill as saying in a prayer during a visit to the Nizhny Novgorod region, one of the worst hit by fires.
"I call upon everyone to unite in a prayer for rain to descend on our earth."
Thick smoke from nearby forest fires blanketed a magnificent monastery where Kirill, clad in a richly embroidered gold cloak, conducted an outdoor liturgy glorifying a Russian saint, Russia's NTV channel showed.
The mainly elderly worshippers stood on their knees as Kirill prayed for rain. "This (fires) is punishment sent to us for sins," a woman worshipper told NTV.
"We should do only good deeds and pray."
Itar-Tass news agency quoted Nizhny Novgorod Governor Valery Shantsev as saying fire fighters were trying to prevent fires in a nature reserve in next-door Mordovia from reaching the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in his region.
"We would like to employ aircraft to take part in putting out the flames, but it cannot work at the moment ... due to low visibility," he said.
The nuclear center, now a premiere research facility, was a top-secret location in Soviet times codenamed Arzamas-16, or simply "the Site," where the first Soviet atomic and hydrogen bombs were designed in the Cold War weapons race with the United States.
The Emergencies Ministry said it saw no immediate respite.
"The threat of new fires has increased sharply due to unfavorable weather in a number of regions in the Central and Volga federal districts, with temperatures soaring to up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and winds of up to 20 meters per second," the ministry said.
The drought in Russia, one of the world's biggest wheat exporters, has sent global prices soaring to year highs. U.S. wheat futures rose more than 5 percent on Friday and posted the biggest monthly percentage gain since at least 1959.
Around 240,000 people were battling the flames, the Emergencies Ministry said. Army units, including elite paratroops, were taking part in the fight.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to allocate 5 billion roubles ($165 million) to help fire victims.
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Michael Roddy