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Moscow turns ownership of public monasteries over to Orthodox Church

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered the handover of about 20 Moscow-area monasteries to the Russian Orthodox Church, returning properties seized during the Bolshevik Revolution almost a century ago.

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Novodevichy convent, Moscow: The oldest structure at the Russian Orthodox Church monastery is the five-domed Cathedral of Our Lady of Smolensk, built in the 1500s. In Soviet times, it was turned into a state museum and apartments. Nuns were allowed to return in 1994.

Fred Weir

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The stunning 16th-century fortified convent of Novodevichy, a pearl of Russian architecture nestled in a broad bend of the Moskva River about three miles from the Kremlin, is at the heart of a tense battle. Cultural secularists want the UNESCO Heritage Site to remain a state-run museum, but the Kremlin has made a political decision to return the entire complex to the stewardship of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In January, Prime MinĀ­ister Vladimir Putin ordered the handover, which will make Novodevichy a fully functioning convent for the first time since the Bolsheviks seized the property almost a century ago. But the directive may also force museums to relinquish thousands of icons and other worship-related items that originally belonged to the site, so they, too, can be used once again in religious ceremonies.

Novodevichy is the last of about 20 Moscow-area monasteries to be returned to the church, along with hundreds of similar buildings around the country, in a process that church spokespeople and nationalist politicians in the State Duma hail as "historical justice."

But critics allege the mass giveaway of art and real estate to the church endangers precious artifacts, removes vast swaths of Russia's heritage from the public sphere, and cements a controversial political compact between church and Kremlin.

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