Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Patriarch Kirill, at a congress of Orthodox bishops at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Moscow (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday participated in a congress of top clerics in Moscow, a first for a Russian leader, in a drive for ever tighter relations between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church.
The symbolic gesture, hailed by Patriarch Kirill as a "historic event," shows Putin's eagerness to fortify already strong ties with the church ahead of March presidential polls, despite a constitutional separation between church and state in the country.
"The state, while it respects the self-sufficiency and independence of the church, expects to continue our cooperation in such important spheres like education and healthcare, cultural and historical heritage, and helping families bring up youth," Putin told the assembly.
Putin is the first Russian president to visit the meeting of Orthodox bishops, the Russian church's top decision-making body that meets at least every four years and which, among other things, elects the patriarch.
This year the gathering is taking place in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
"The church authorities are overjoyed that he himself has come to participate, like Byzantine emperors long ago who came to church assemblies," said Boris Falikov, an expert at the Centre for Religious Studies at the Russian State University of the Humanities.
"It's a triumph for them."
- Union 'important for Putin' -
Since Putin first came to power in 2000, the Russian church has enjoyed vastly increased influence and finances, with the government supporting restitution of cathedrals and monasteries that served non-religious purposes in Soviet times.
The church is also increasing its impact on traditionally secular institutions such as schools, with the educational system establishing lessons in religion and clerics lobbying for conservative textbooks.
The government has also made it a criminal offence to "insult religious sentiments," a charge punishable by time in jail.
Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill gives unwavering political support to Kremlin initiatives, such as annexing the Crimean peninsula or intervening in the Syrian conflict.
"A union with the church is very important for Putin," Falikov said. "The church upholds traditional values, which corresponds with Putin's path of... resistance to 'Western moral decadence'."
Under Putin "a system has been built in Russia in which the interests of the church and state are tied together," said Roman Lunkin, who heads the Center for Religion and Society Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"The government is giving real estate to the church, building churches. It's done to give the authorities sacred legitimacy," he said, however adding that there are some issues, like abortion, on which the two diverge.
- 'Embrace' of church and state -
Among the ruling elites, the church is seen as a fundamental component of Russian identity, and a bulwark against detrimental Western influence. Some 70 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians according to polls, though few regularly practise.
In his interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone this year, Putin said an ideological void appeared in the country following the breakup of the communist Soviet Union that "could only be filled by religion".
The church is "the guardian of moral and spiritual values" of the country and "it is impossible to imagine the Russian state without the spiritual and historical experience of the Orthodox Church," Putin said last May, when he inaugurated a new church in Moscow.
While ties to the Russian government bring the church financial benefits, the relationship of increasingly deferential dependence is also worrying, said Falikov.
"The church is again dependent on the state," he said. "With time, the state will smother the church in its embrace. The more it gets closer to the state, the more it is going to lose its moral authority."