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KARYES (Greece) (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday visited the monastic community of Mount Athos, one of Orthodox Christianity's holiest sites, on the last leg of a two-day visit to Greece.
Putin, who has often talked about his strong Orthodox faith, joined celebrations for the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian presence at the ancient, all-male monastic community of Mount Athos, in northern Greece.
State TV ERT showed Putin arriving at the little port of Daphne, near the coastal Russian monastery, after 1100 GMT on a yacht escorted by a small flotilla of security vessels.
Underscoring the private nature of his visit -- his first to the region since 2005 -- he wore no tie and immediately removed his jacket before briefly posing for photographs at the port.
A broadly smiling Putin then attended a welcome ceremony at the Protaton, the oldest church of the Mount Athos administrative capital of Karyes, where he was greeted by ringing church bells.
The Russian leader lit a candle and kissed the Axion Esti, a revered icon of the Virgin Mary, ERT footage showed.
"Important work on moral foundations and moral values is done on Mount Athos," he said.
He later told a gathering of abbots: "Whoever enters this land of prayer experiences special feelings."
"The role of Mount Athos is particularly important to Russian Orthodoxy," he said, adding that over 11,000 Russian faithful visit the area annually.
Putin was joined on his visit by Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, a former Communist who clashed with EU peers last year over the Ukraine crisis, arguing that the bloc should avoid "spasmodic" moves against Russia.
Accompanied by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin then visited the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon on the west coast of the Halkidiki peninsula.
Media coverage of the Mount Athos trip was restricted and Putin's Russian monastery visit was entirely off bounds.
Russia and Greece are both largely Orthodox Christian countries and share close religious ties.
Mount Athos is an enclave of 20 monasteries -- including one apiece for Russia, Serbia and Bulgaria -- that has enjoyed autonomy since Byzantine times.
On Friday, Putin signed several economic deals with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens during a visit aimed at reinforcing a relationship with one of his few friends in the EU at a time of tension with the West.
The visit, Putin's first to the EU since December, comes at a low ebb in relations between Russia and Europe over the conflict in Ukraine that broke out in 2014, with sanctions still in force against Moscow.
It also comes as Athens desperately seeks to emerge from recession, with Greek officials saying increased trade with Russia could play a part in recovery efforts.
EU leaders will next month discuss whether to renew sanctions on Russia's banking, defence and energy sectors that expire in July.