(This version of the story has been corrected to make clear gift was a model jet)
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, was presented with an unlikely gift for a religious leader this week as he toured a factory in Russia’s far-east - a model of a single-seater fighter jet SU-35.
Kirill was presented with the model after giving workers at the civilian and military aircraft plant icons blessed by himself, the church said in a statement on its official website on Tuesday.
The patriarch, with whom President Vladimir Putin has fostered increasingly close ties in recent years, addressed the workers on the importance of protecting Russia.
“Russia cannot be a vassal. Because Russia is not only a country, it is a whole civilization, it is a thousand-year story, a cultural melting-pot, of enormous power,” RIA news agency quoted him as saying.
“In order for us to be able to live a sovereign life, we must, if necessary, be able to defend our homeland.”
Kirill’s church is aligned with Putin’s drive to reunite the former Soviet sphere of countries, with the Russian Orthodox Church exerting considerable influence through its 165 million members in Russia and other former USSR republics.
Critics of the Russian Orthodox Church have said it is acting as a de-facto government ministry for Putin, including in foreign affairs, and have warned that such political engagements could backfire.
That also goes for Ukraine, where Kirill’s Moscow Patriarchate is at odds with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kiev Patriarchate that seceded from Moscow after Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
The Moscow Patriarchate dominates in the Russian-speaking East, where Ukrainian forces have been battling a pro-Russian separatist insurgency since April.
Reporting by Alessandra Prentice; Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall