MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia officially celebrated a new holiday on Wednesday marking its conversion to Christianity in 988, the latest Kremlin boost to an Orthodox Church that has grown increasingly powerful since the fall of Communism.
Rights groups have criticized the new holiday, approved by President Dmitry Medvedev in June, as undermining Russia’s secular constitution and members of the country’s large Muslim minority have complained that it excludes them.
Marking the anniversary, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, told state-run television: “Abandoning the historical significance of the baptism of Rus means discarding the supporting pillar of our entire civilization”.
Kirill held a liturgy in Kiev, the capital of modern Ukraine and mediaeval Kievan Rus, whose leader Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity over a millennia ago and adopted it for his state. Kievan Rus is seen as the precursor to modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Clad in a flowing gold cloak in Kiev’s historic Pecherska Lavra monastery, Kirill told thousands of followers: “Facing aggressive atheism and resurgent paganism we remain firm in our belief in God”.
The Orthodox Church is undergoing a revival in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago and Russia’s leaders have endorsed it as the country’s main faith.
The Russian patriarch also presides over the biggest branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, although some Ukrainian clergy have declared themselves independent of Moscow and Kirill’s visit to Kiev has angered some Ukrainian nationalists.
The trend toward consolidation of the church as a national force in Russia has worried its 20-million strong Muslim population — a seventh of Russia’s people — as well as those who believe church and state should be strictly separated.
Medvedev on June 1 signed a law making July 28 a National Day, a state holiday that is also a working day.
Across Russia, churches prepared to hold ceremonies and mass river baptisms in honor of the conversion.
Since Medvedev’s law, Muslim lawmakers have asked for a national holiday to mark the arrival of Islam in modern-day Russia, which Arabs brought through the southern gateway city of Derbent on the Caspian Sea more than 1,000 years ago.
Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; Editing by Peter Graff