Nearly half a million Russians queue to touch holy relic
Braving sub-zero temperatures and a line stretching several kilometres, almost half a million Russians queued this week to venerate a relic of the Virgin Mary brought to Moscow from Greece.
The Moscow authorities said 400,000 people had waited outside Moscow's vast Cathedral of Christ the Saviour since The Belt of the Virgin Mary relic arrived on Saturday. Around 82,000 were queuing on Thursday alone.
In an extraordinary display of the strength of Orthodox Christianity in post-Soviet Russia, the faithful have stood in a queue stretching five kilometres (three miles).
The Belt of the Virgin Mary is believed to help women's fertility and cure illnesses. It toured ten other Russian cities before arriving in the capital.
"There is something I need to ask. Nobody in this line is here just for fun," said 40-year-old Ivan, who was waiting at the front of the line for his wife and child.
He said venerating the belt is especially meaningful since it rarely leaves mount Athos, a Greek peninsula with very strict visitation policy, where only men are allowed to go.
"I joined the line at midnight, so it's been about 12 hours," he said. The wait could be up to 26 hours, news agencies said.
"I am 74, and I have suffered a heart attack. I am handicapped in my arm and leg," said another man, identifying himself as Vladimir, after exiting the imposing white cathedral and leaning on his wife's supporting arm.
"Maybe it will help?" he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
The head of the Moscow city centre prefecture Pavel Bolshunov told Russian news agencies that as of Thursday morning over 407,000 people had visited the relic since the weekend and another 82,000 were currently waiting.
Faced with the queues, the Russian Orthodox Church extended the relic's stay in Moscow by three days to Sunday.
An intercom announcement on the Moscow metro at the stop nearest to the Cathedral warned people arriving by the subway that the line stretched along the Moscow river for nearly five kilometres and its end was in a distant neighbourhood four metro stops away.
Struggling to contain the throngs of Orthodox believers, the city erected a maze of metal barriers, rerouted traffic on some of the streets, and brought in 1,500 police officers to ensure order.
The Cathedral asked on its website that people simply touch the small silver chest holding the relic with their hand, without kissing it in the Orthodox tradition, "so that as many people as possible could touch the relic."
But by Thursday afternoon the cathedral staff moved the chest to sit atop of an arch which people simply walked through, allowing 80 people to worship it every minute, RIA Novosti reported.
A woman pleaded with one officer on Thursday to be allowed to the top of the queue. "But I took the day off already!" she said, wringing her hands. Parents ushered boys and girls through the barricades in a separate queue for children and the handicapped.
Another pale young woman asked an officer: "Where is the line for pregnant women?" A makeshift booth offered free hot tea.
The Belt of the Virgin Mary is kept permanently in Vatopedi monastery on the Greek mount Athos and this is its first ever appearance in Russia.
Russia's Orthodox Church had an incredible surge of influence and power in recent years as millions of Russians began to practice religion in the 1990s after decades of state-dictated atheism in the Soviet Union.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour became a symbol of this change when its replica was built in 1997 in the same spot where the original was blown up by Soviet authorities in 1931.
© 2011 AFP