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Thousands Protest Proposed Church For Third Day In Russia's Yekaterinburg


Russian police officers detain demonstrators protesting plans to construct a church in a park in Yekaterinburg.

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- Thousands of demonstrators faced off with riot police in a third night of protests over a proposal to build a new Russian Orthodox church on the site of a popular park.

The May 15 demonstrations in Yekaterinburg have focused on the planned church, which activists say would occupy one of the few remaining green spaces in the city, Russia's fourth largest.

It's the latest example of public protests in Russia sparked not by Kremlin politics but by outrage over local municipal initiatives.

Protesters chanted "Shame! Shame!" and "This is our city!" as they confronted helmeted riot police. Earlier, police and workers replaced chain-link fences surrounding the main part of the park with taller and more solid temporary walls.

The mood has ranged from festive to tense over the past two days. Protesters have repeatedly pulled down the fencing, and at one point, threw parts of it into a nearby pond. There was no official estimate of the crowd, though it appeared at least 2,000 people had gathered after dark on May 15.

Yelena Shmarova, an IT technician and Yekaterinburg native, told RFE/RL that she considered herself religious, but was against the proposed church, saying the city has enough already. She also said people don’t trust the city government.

"There are three green spaces in the city center and they’re taking one away," she said.

RFE/RL's Russian Service said at least two dozen people have been detained since the demonstrations first erupted on May 13. Three people have hospitalized with minor injuries after scuffles with police.

The actions were sparked by city authorities giving permission for church officials to build a replica of a cathedral that had been demolished in 1930 by Soviet leaders.

Orthodox Church leaders say they need new churches to replace those destroyed during the communist era.

New Church Plan Sparks Confrontation In Russia
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Local activists have rejected the plan, saying there are many other places where a new church can be located.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticized the protesters on May 15 for what he called "unauthorized gatherings" as well as for pulling down fencing.

Alongside hundreds opposed to the new church, a number of Orthodox activists also turned out, headed by Father Maksim Menyailo.

One of them was Kirill Bubnov, a 19-year-old seminary student who said he supported the proposal to rebuild this particular church. He said the fears of the protesters, that there wouldn't be any green space, were misplaced.

"There will be a wonderful square here, no one is taking it away," he told RFE/RL.

On the first day of protests, demonstrators toppled the fence but were confronted by security guards hired by Russia's largest copper-producing company, which has offered financial support for the project.

They were also confronted by several mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters apparently linked to the copper firm who were brought in to protect the site.

Among the fighters was Ivan Shtyrkov, nicknamed the Ural Hulk -- a professional MMA fighter.

In recent months, there have been а number of national protests that have focused on issues like Kremlin-backed reforms to the pension system, and legislation to increase state control over the Internet.

But there have also been public protests that have focused on localized issues.

Residents of a Moscow region town last year had a series of violent clashes with police over a proposed new landfill for trash and garbage from Moscow itself.

A similar protest was staged near the northern city of Arkhangelsk in February, where residents fought another proposal to have Moscow garbage transported to a local landfill.

Yekaterinburg has also shown a streak of political independence in the past.

Yevgeny Roizman resigned as city mayor in 2018 in protest at changes to the city charter that abolished the direct election of the mayor.

With reporting by Current Time, RFE/RL's Russian Service, AP, AFP, and the BBC
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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.