Passionate debate over the relationship between the Orthodox church and the Russian state

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Protesters rallied in St. Petersburg on Saturday against plans by the city authorities to give a landmark cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church amid an increasingly passionate debate over the relationship between the church and the Russian state.

“We won’t give St. Isaac’s to the church. We want to save it as a museum,” Boris Vishnevsky, a local lawmaker, told protesters in central St. Petersburg.

St. Isaac’s, one of the most visited tourist sites in Russia’s old imperial capital, has been a museum since 1917. Some experts are concerned that when it gains ownership, the Orthodox Church will neglect the exhibits on display, which include a rare Foucault pendulum.

The rally Saturday by over 2,000 people was significantly larger than a similar demonstration by several hundred people earlier this month.

“St. Isaac’s Cathedral is part of our cultural heritage. There are so many valuable exhibits that require the work of museum specialists. The Russian Orthodox Church does not have those specialists,” said Irina Azbel, 43, a doctor among those protesting.

A few dozen counter-protesters gathered in the same place to support the plans.

“The return of the cathedral to the church is a return to our national roots,” said Yelena Semyonova, a 52-year-old professor.

The announcement earlier this month that the neoclassical St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which is currently a museum, will be put under Orthodox Church ownership has sparked a backlash from city residents. More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the city authorities to reconsider.

Prominent cultural figures, including the director of St. Petersburg’s world-renowned Hermitage Museum, have criticized the decision.

The handover has been seen as indicative of the growing power of the Orthodox Church and part of a trend of social conservatism in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has appealed to traditional values as opposed to Western liberalism to help tighten his grip on society.

Decriminalization of domestic violence

Soon it will also no longer be a crime in Russia to beat family members — as long as you don’t cause bodily harm.

The lower house of the Russian parliament on Friday gave final approval to a bill decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence — a move that has sparked intense public debate.

The State Duma voted 380-3 Friday to eliminate criminal liability for battery on family members that doesn’t cause bodily harm, making it punishable instead by a fine or a 15-day arrest. The law needs to be approved by the largely rubber-stamp upper chamber and signed by President Vladimir Putin, who has signaled his support.

The bill has raised fears that it could sow impunity for those who beat up their wives and children, but its supporters have argued that it retains criminal responsibility for repeat offenders.

The measure is a response to conservative criticism of the current law, seen by some as a threat to parents who might spank their children.

The bill stems from last year’s Supreme Court ruling to decriminalize battery that doesn’t inflict bodily harm, but to retain criminal charges for those accused of battery against family members. The Duma then approved the corresponding legislation only to change course now.

Andrei Isayev of the main Kremlin faction, the United Russia, said lawmakers are “heeding the public call” by correcting a mistake they made last year.

A survey this month by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed that 19 percent of Russians said “it can be acceptable” to hit one’s wife, husband or child “in certain circumstances.” The nationwide poll by phone of 1,800 people was held Jan. 13-15. The survey had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Critics of the measure have warned that it would encourage domestic violence and fuel crime.

“This bill would establish violence as a norm of conduct,” Communist lawmaker Yuri Sinelshchikov said during the debate.

Data on domestic violence in Russia is scarce, but Interior Ministry statistics show that 40 percent of all violent crimes in Russia are committed in family surroundings. In 2013, more than 9,000 women were reported to have been killed in domestic violence.

Russian police are often reluctant to react to domestic violence calls, which many regard as meddling in family affairs.

Prosecutors in November began investigating a police officer who took a call from a woman complaining about her boyfriend’s aggressive behavior. Instead of offering help, the officer reportedly told the woman that the police would only come if she got killed. Shortly afterward, the man beat the woman to death.