ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The Russian Orthodox Church on Friday defended its controversial bid to fully take over St. Petersburg's landmark St. Isaac's Cathedral, saying it's in line with the law and wouldn't hamper tourist access.
The Orthodox Church, which has wielded increasing clout in Russia, has taken jurisdiction over many historic churches and monasteries in Moscow and other cities since the Soviet collapse. It has faced difficulties, however, reclaiming its erstwhile assets in St. Petersburg.
The 101-meter high St. Isaac's is one of the world's biggest cathedrals, designed by French architect Auguste de Montferrand and built in 1818-1858. Many of its treasures were pilfered after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, but the cathedral itself escaped demolition unlike many other historic churches.
It features on the list of UNESCO's cultural assets and is the third most-visited cultural site in St. Petersburg. It has continued to serve as a museum, but the Church has periodically used it for services.
The museum's director, Nikolai Burov, warns that the takeover could impede tourist access and slow down the pace of restoration works. Some city legislators also opposed the church's bid, and local activists have pushed for a referendum on the issue.
Natalya Rodomanova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Orthodox Church's St. Petersburg eparchy, said Friday that its bid complies with the Russian law. She said tourist access to the building will not be impeded.
"Tourists will have similar access to it as they do now, except that the entrance will be free of charge," she said. "St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome belongs to the Catholic Church, and many other known cathedrals around the world belong to religious organizations and it doesn't hurt the tourist flow."
Several city legislators strongly opposed the church's takeover of St. Isaac's and backed the referendum.
One of them, Maxim Reznik, head of the city legislature's education, culture and science commission, said discussion of the issue should not be held behind "the closed doors" but involve broad public involvement.
"St. Isaac's Cathedral is one of the major symbols of St. Petersburg," he said. "It should not belong to only one organization, even if it is a very powerful one."