- Associated Press - Thursday, January 12, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) - In the latest scandal involving the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, authorities in St. Petersburg on Thursday defended a controversial decision to give a city landmark cathedral to the church.

Museum experts and locals in Russia’s former imperial capital were rattled by the governor’s announcement this week that he was transferring St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the church. An online petition against that decision had tens of thousands of signatures by Thursday.

The neoclassical church, completed in the 19th century, has been an important museum since Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and is now the city’s third most visited site. Some museum experts are concerned that the Orthodox Church will neglect its exhibits, which include a rare Foucault pendulum.

Mikhail Mokretsov, deputy governor of Russia’s second-largest city, on Thursday vowed that the city hall will make sure that tourists get unfettered access to the site. He said the city will retain its ownership of the cathedral and will shoulder maintenance costs while the church will get operational rights.

Church spokesman Vladimir Legoyda on Thursday assured the public that visitors will not even notice the difference when the church begins to operate St. Isaac’s.

“Nobody is going to limit the access to the cathedral,” he told reporters. “It’s in the church’s interests to preserve museum heritage.”

Although St. Isaac’s was built as an Orthodox cathedral, except for a brief period it was always owned by the government.

Opposition lawmakers and activists plan to protest Friday against the decision, which they see as part of a growing trend toward social conservatism in Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church has played an active part in President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to consolidate Russian society by appealing to traditional values as opposed to Western liberalism.

The church’s attempts to expand its influence have sometimes caused controversy, however.

On Wednesday, a senior Orthodox cleric in Siberia, the Metropolitan of Novosibirsk, Tikhon, lashed out at the local opera and ballet theater for staging the classic Christmas ballet, “The Nutcracker,” which he insisted was based on a “occult subject.”

In 2015, Tikhon protested against Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser.” Several months later the Russian culture minister fired the theater’s director and the opera was removed from the theater’s repertoire.

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