updated 5/17/2007 7:42:33 PM ET 2007-05-17T23:42:33

As bells pealed and worshippers wept, Russian Orthodox leaders signed a pact Thursday to heal an 80-year schism between the church in Russia and an offshoot set up abroad following the Bolshevik Revolution.

“A historic event awaited for long, long years has occurred. The unity of the Russian church is restored,” Moscow Patriarch Alexy II said before signing the agreement with Metropolitan Laurus, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. That branch split off in anger when the Russian church declined to defy the Communist government.

The lavish, nationally televised ceremony was watched by President Vladimir Putin and a throng of worshippers in Moscow’s vast Christ the Savior Cathedral and underscored the resurgence of Russia’s dominant faith in the post-Soviet era.

The two elderly, bearded clerics, in sparkling headgear, bent to kiss each other’s cheeks. Worshippers crossed themselves and shed tears — a few snapped photos on cell phones — and incense wafted from a censer swung by one of the dozens of white-robed clerics gathered along the cathedral’s central aisle.

“Joy illuminates our hearts,” Alexy said.

The rift began three years after the 1917 revolution amid the country’s civil war. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia cut all ties in 1927, after Moscow Patriarch Sergiy declared loyalty to the Communist government.

The Russian Orthodox Church said Sergiy hoped to save the church from annihilation, but the breakaway group regarded the decision as a betrayal — and saw itself as the true protector of the faith during decades of officially atheist Communist rule.

“In 1917, a tragedy began — the division of the church, the division of the people,” said Vladimir Tenekov, one of a steady stream of worshippers who waited in intermittent rain outside the cathedral. “Now the opposite is happening.”

The white cathedral on the Moscow River near the Kremlin is a symbol of religious revival following an era when many believers were arrested and imprisoned. It was built in the 1990s to replace the original, which was blown up in 1931 under orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and replaced by a swimming pool.

Church where Yeltsin's funeral held
The televised ceremony added to the visibility of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been in the spotlight lately with elaborate funerals at the cathedral for former President Boris Yeltsin and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Church and state are separated under Russia’s post-Soviet Constitution, but Alexy has claimed a leading role for the church in setting moral guidelines for society. Its growing prominence has caused concerns among minority faiths.

The ceremony was also a stage for Putin — who served the Soviet state as a KGB officer — to burnish his religious credentials by strengthening his association with the church.

Through most of the four-hour ceremony, Putin stood alone before a towering mural of the Virgin Mary cradling the haloed baby Jesus in her lap. Alexy presented Putin with a set of icons and credited him for helping end the split by meeting with leaders of the church abroad.

Reunification talks began after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and gathered momentum in recent years. The Moscow Patriarchate last year disavowed Sergiy’s declaration, setting the stage for reconciliation.

A pact, not a merger, for the two sides
Laurus has said that the reunion pact — the Canonical Communion Act — does not mark a merger, and that his branch would maintain administrative control over its 400-plus parishes worldwide. The New York-based church reports 480,000 U.S. members.

The Moscow Patriarchate counts about two-thirds of Russia’s population of 142 million as members and controls branches in other former Soviet republics.

The pact makes the church abroad “an inalienable, self-governed part” of a common Russian Orthodox Church, according to the Kremlin. Each church will maintain its own leader and council of bishops, but clergy will be able to lead services and parishioners take communion in both churches.

“We will pray together even if we are at different ends of the Earth,” Archbishop Mark of the church abroad said Wednesday.

Analysts said that while the pact would heal some divisions, it could open others.

Some in the church abroad feel the Moscow Patriarchate has not gone far enough in confronting its cooperation with Communist authorities, said Michael Bourdeaux, president of Britain’s Keston Institute, which studies religious issues in the former Soviet Union.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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