Activists storm Yekaterinburg park in protest against new church

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Protesters in YekaterinburgImage copyright
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Protesters toppled the fence in Yekaterinburg, while chanting “We want a square”

About 2,000 people have protested against a church being built on a park square in Yekaterinburg in Russia.

Tuesday was the second day of protests in what is a long-standing conflict over the planned church.

Activists say building St Catherine’s Cathedral on the square will destroy one of the city’s few green spaces.

But the Russian Orthodox Church says it needs new churches to replace the many that were destroyed under Soviet anti-religion laws.

This particular church will be a replica of one such cathedral that was demolished in 1930.

It is due to be completed in 2023 in time for the 300th anniversary of the founding of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the government was monitoring the situation.

What exactly happened?

Following a call on social media, thousands of residents got together “for a stroll” on the Iset River embankment in the centre of the city on Monday.

The protesters gathered near a temporary fence that had been erected around a section of the park, marking off the space where the church is supposed to be built.

They formed a human chain around the fence and, eventually, managed to topple it, while chanting: “We want a square.”

As the crowds made their way into the park, they were confronted by security guards hired by Russian Copper Company (RCC) – which is sponsoring the construction of the church – as well as some Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters apparently linked to the company’s Academy of Martial Arts.

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MMA fighter Ivan Shtyrkov (file photo) was among those defending the construction of the church

Among the pro-church fighters was Ivan Shtyrkov, also known as the Ural Hulk – a professional MMA fighter and head of the RCC’s academy.

Protests continued through the night, and throughout the following day.

According to independent Russian news outlets, several protesters were arrested on Tuesday and taken into police custody. Local news site 66.ru says seven people were arrested, while Russian news agency Interfax puts the number at 10.

Why are people against the church?

The church has been a source of controversy since plans to build it were first announced almost a decade ago, in 2010.

On its website the local activist group in Yekaterinburg says: “To build the cathedral they want to destroy the park, which is a favourite place for residents to relax.”

Others have said that the city is in need of more, not fewer, parks.

“Nobody is against a church, but everyone is against building one here,” one protester told Radio Free Europe. “There are lots of churches here… But not much green space is left in the city.”

Protesters also chanted “we want to see the mayor” – referring to the city’s former mayor Yevgeny Roizman, who was one of few politicians in office who was openly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Roizman resigned last year after it was announced that direct mayoral elections were being scrapped in Yekaterinburg, attacking the decision as anti-democratic.

What has the Church said?

Vakhtang Kipshidze, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, has accused protesters of being “anti-religious”.

“There are a multitude of lawful ways of expressing disagreement… but to create conflict on religious grounds is especially sad on the soil of Yekaterinburg, where not so long ago by historical standards mass religious persecution took place and Tsar Nicholas II and his young children were murdered,” he told Interfax.

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The fence marks off the area where the church is being constructed

He added that the protest “could only have been organised by people driven by anti-religious motives”.

Representatives from the church took part in emergency closed-door meetings with activists, convened by Yevgeny Kuivashev, the governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast.

Mr Kipshidze said that while the church was in favour of constructive dialogue between the church and the protesters, these discussions should not include people who “simply cannot tolerate anything connected to religion”.

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