A row over a plan to rebuild an historic church in one of Russia’s largest cities turned violent this week, after opponents of the project dismantled a fence around the construction site for a second day running.
Tempers flared in central Ekaterinburg on Tuesday evening, as protesters clashed with city police after failed talks. Three people were reportedly injured while 23 others were detained by the law enforcement. The melee came on the second day of the protest, marking a low point in a long-standing disagreement over whether to rebuild a church dedicated to the patron saint of the city.
Ekaterinburg, the largest city in the Urals, is named after Catherine of Alexandria, a venerated saint of the early days of Christianity. A church in her name was laid down in 1723, the year when the city was founded, and existed in some form until 1930, when communist authorities decided to level the building and create a square in its place.
Since the early 1990s, the Russian Orthodox Church has been advocating for the rebuilding of the historic church. As a nod to the aspiration, a small chapel was erected in the square in 1998 next to a memorial cross marking the location of the destroyed church, but many residents objected to plans for a larger fully-functional cathedral. The project stalled; the site for the proposed church changed twice before eventually city authorities approved construction in a small park in the center of Ekaterinburg on the bank of the Iset River. The park became the focal point of this week’s confrontation.
The protest was triggered by builder crews erecting a wire fence around the designated construction site. People, who say they want to save their favorite gathering spot, occupied the park on Monday evening, toppling the fence in the process. They surrounded a small tent defended by a few security guards and declared an indefinite sit-in on the location. The plan was thwarted a few hours later when those supporting the church’s construction showed up and pushed the occupying protesters outside the toppled fence.
On Tuesday, protesters started gathering again in their hundreds, or even thousands, according to some accounts. They chanted slogans like “F**k the temple” and jumped up and down together to the slogan “Whoever doesn’t jump is for the temple.”
Ekaterinburg’s regional governor Evgeny Kuivashev called for direct talks between the parties. The meeting, at his office, lasted for 2.5 hours but failed to resolve the conflict. Defenders of the park accused their opponents of refusing to hear their opinion and leaving them with no legal way to stop the construction. The proponents of the project said they spent nine years seeking a compromise solution and accused the protesters of inflaming the situation in an attempt to impose the will of a small minority on the city. At one point of the heated debate a priest said the actions of the protesters were akin to terrorism.
After the negotiations failed, the protesters again stormed the fence, successfully dismantling it and throwing into the river. Riot police seemed to follow an order to show restraint, only interfering to hold up the most aggressive people in the crowd and keeping them separated from the security guards. Nevertheless, some people got hurt or arrested before the protest winded down and people dispersed.
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