Italy returns Orthodox church to Russia

Bari, Italy - Italy on Sunday returned ownership to Russia of an Orthodox church named after St. Nicholas in a goodwill gesture toward Moscow and the Orthodox faithful.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to the southern Italian city of Bari for the hand-over, which was aimed at boosting ties between the two countries and improving often-tense Roman Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.

Surrounded by frescoes and icons depicting the saint, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano handed Medvedev a key to the church, calling it "a symbol of friendship between our countries and our people, and a symbol of the historic dialogue between the Catholic church and the Orthodox church."

Russia built the church in the early 20th century to welcome its pilgrims who traveled to Bari, on the heel of boot-shaped Italy, 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.

Pope Benedict XVI in a message read at the ceremony voiced hope that the restitution would help bring Christians together, and that Bari would continue to act as a bridge between East and West.

"This beautiful church reawakens in us the longing for full unity, and keeps alive our commitment to work for the unity of all the disciples of Christ," the pope said.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill called the restitution an act of "justice" for the persecution suffered by the Orthodox Church under Communism.

Medvedev recalled that the hand-over also was made possible by efforts by Kirill's predecessor, Alexy II. The handover was originally scheduled for December, but was postponed after Alexy's death.

A crowd including eastern European immigrants waved Russian flags and cheered outside the complex, built in white stone and topped by a traditional onion-shaped dome.

The Russian church became the property of Bari city 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.

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.

"The importance of this complex for Orthodoxy in Italy will grow in the future," Medvedev said. "Thousands of our fellow Russians will come here from all over the country."

Benedict, 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. Relations also have been troubled by accusations that Roman Catholics seek converts in traditionally Orthodox areas, a charge the Vatican denies.

Sunday's 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 1 million immigrants from Romania and other eastern European countries, Orthodox Christianity now competes with Islam as the second largest religion in Italy after Catholicism.