Protests mark cathedral's return to Russian Orthodox control

Protesters against the transfer of St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church gather in front of the St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. About 2,500 people rallied in St. Petersburg on Sunday against the decision of the city authorities to hand over the city's landmark St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Orthodox priest and believers attend a Sunday service in the St. Isaac's Cathedral in St.Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. St. Petersburg Orthodox eparchy held a cross procession around the city's St. Isaac's Cathedral to support the plans on the cathedral's handover to the Russian Orthodox Church. Currently the Cathedral has a museum status. The cross procession gathered around 1000 people. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
People formed a live circle around the St. Isaac's Cathedral as a symbol of protection in St.Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. About 2,500 people rallied in St. Petersburg on Sunday against the decision of the city authorities to hand over the city's landmark St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Orthodox priests and believers attend a Cross Walk around the St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. St. Petersburg Orthodox eparchy held a cross procession around the city's St. Isaac's Cathedral to support the plans on the cathedral's handover to the Russian Orthodox Church. Currently the Cathedral has a museum status. The cross procession gathered around 1000 people. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Thousands of people in Russia's second-largest city held competing demonstrations Sunday for and against the return of the renowned St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The cathedral, one of St. Petersburg's top tourist destinations, was seized by the state after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and became a museum. The city announced last month that it would be returned to church control.

Opponents say they fear that under the church, tours will focus on the cathedral's religious aspects and give short shrift to its architectural and cultural importance.

"One of the city's biggest museums is being ruined," Anna Polovikina, an opponent of the handover, said. "I'm an Orthodox believer, and this situation won't change my belief, but I know people who are really disappointed with the church."

The Russian Orthodox Church is the country's predominant religion, and critics say it has become too closely allied with the Kremlin.

But proponents of returning St. Isaac's to the church say secular control debases the cathedral, where occasional masses were said during its years of being city-run.

As a museum, St. Isaac's has become "a business that feeds itself ... the rare church services held in the cathedral are like theater for tourists," demonstrator Vitaly Milonov, a Russian parliament member who supports putting the church back in charge, said.

The demonstration supporting church control attracted about 1,000 people, while the one in opposition was twice that size.

The director of the city's famed Hermitage Museum is among the critics of the cathedral's conveyance.

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