International Orthodox Christian News

Italy hands over Church to Russia

Italy is returning ownership to Russia of an Orthodox church named after St. Nicholas in a goodwill gesture toward Moscow and the Orthodox faithful.
President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia traveled to the southern Italian city of Bari for the hand-over ceremony later Sunday, which aims to boost ties between the two countries and improve often-tense Roman Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.
Russia built the church in the early 20th century to welcome its pilgrims who traveled to Bari to pray near the relics of Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century saint associated with Christmas and much revered by Russian Orthodox faithful.
His remains are kept in the crypt of the nearby Catholic Basilica of St. Nicholas, where Orthodox rites also are celebrated.
The Russian church became the property of the city of Bari in 1937 as the number of Russian Orthodox pilgrims dwindled following the Bolshevik revolution. Its surrounding complex was used to house Russian emigres and some city offices.
"With this act, another wall falls," said the Reverend Vladimir Kuciumov, the church's rector. "Years ago we had the Berlin Wall; now we witness the fall of a wall that divided Catholics and Orthodox, Italians and Russians."
The restitution is expected to boost tourism to Bari by Russians, who lately have flocked to Adriatic beach resorts further north on Italy's east coast. It will also consolidate Bari's traditional image of a bridge between East and West, said Mayor Michele Emiliano.
Nicholas was bishop of Myra, an ancient Asia Minor city, now Demre, Turkey. He is beloved by the faithful for protecting the weak and bringing gifts to the poor. His generosity made him popular centuries later in the Protestant world, where the figure of St. Nicholas changed over the centuries to become today's most familiar gift-bringer: Santa Claus.
Bari launched a naval expedition to Myra in 1087 - ostensibly to save the saint's relics from invading Turks, but the move also put Bari on the lucrative circuit of medieval pilgrimages.
Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2005 made Bari the destination of his first papal trip, has pledged to work to heal Roman Catholicism's 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox church,
Orthodox-Catholic ties have been marred by property disputes in Russia following the collapse of Communism there nearly 20 years ago. Also irritating relations are accusations that Roman Catholics seek converts in traditionally Orthodox areas, a charge the Vatican denies.
The gesture reflects the growing influence of the Orthodox Church in Italy, said Marius Gabriel Lazurca, ambassador to the Holy See from largely Orthodox Romania. With more than one million immigrants from Romania and other eastern European countries, Orthodox Christianity now competes with Islam as the second largest religion in Italy after Catholicism.

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