Russian Patriarch Kirill calls on Russians to vote in March election
Moscow: The head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill on Sunday called on Russians to vote in upcoming presidential elections expected to extend President Vladimir Putin's rule.
"I call on all of you, including Orthodox believers, to take part in the upcoming presidential elections. This is very important," the cleric said in an interview to Russian state television aired to mark Orthodox Christmas.
The Patriarch also warned Russians of "the possibility of malicious people or forces to use digital technology to render irreparable damage to our country and society."
Last week, Russian opposition politician and popular blogger Alexei Navalny urged voters to boycott the March vote after election bosses barred him from standing.
In the interview, Patriarch Kirill praised Putin's role in Syria and warned of the dangers of social divisions.
The religious leader said Moscow's 2015 intervention in the Syria conflict was aimed not only at stabilising the situation on the ground and stopping jihadists from taking power but also at defending Christian minorities.
"There was also the important idea of defending the Christian minorities. And thanks to Russia, the genocide of Christians was stopped," the church leader said.
Without Russian involvement in the conflict, he added, the situation in Syria would look like Iraq after the fall and death of Saddam Hussein.
The powerful cleric said he had been to Iraq when Saddam was still in power, including Mosul, where he visited Christian monasteries.
"I saw the piety of the people and I was glad that Christian churches existed peacefully in a Muslim milieu. Now nothing of that is left. The monasteries are destroyed, the churches are blown up and 85 per cent of Christians are either dead or thrown out. That could have happened to Syria," he said.
The Patriarch said he believed Russia has historically been guided by its conscience over its pragmatism.
"The uniqueness of Russia, although this has sometimes caused problems for the country, is that it is conscientious," he said.
As an example, he cited Russia's role in the 19th century Balkan Wars when "thousands and thousands of Russians went to fight for their Slavic brothers" and when Moscow defended Serbia in the First World War.
The Patriarch also called on Russian authorities to do more to diminish the gap between the rich and poor in order to "increase justice in our national life."
"Socialism tried to solve this problem. But let's say it straight: it did not," the Patriarch said.
He also called on Russians to "respect the life" of Russia's last Tsar, Nicholas II, following a film about his love affair with a ballerina that stirred controversy in Russia on the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution last year.
The Russian Orthodox Church considers Nicholas a saint.
The Patriarch said the film "threw more dirt at the martyr (the Tsar)" and explained that it had offended Orthodox believers.
He added that an expert study on the presumed remains of the Tsarist family, executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, is ongoing.
Russian president Vladimir Putin meanwhile praised the role of the Orthodox Church after attending an Orthodox Christmas church service in his native Saint Petersburg late Saturday.
"This holiday gives millions of believers happiness and hope, brings them back to spiritual sources and native traditions and unites (people) around the eternal Christian values of our nation's centuries-old cultural heritage," Putin stated.