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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 16:16 GMT
Monks hope to retrieve sacred bells

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent in Moscow

Every morning Father Roman winds his way up a narrow, stone stairway to take his place on a platform high above Moscow's rooftops.

A softly spoken young monk with a long wispy beard, Father Roman has been chief bell ringer at the Danilov monastery for three years.

But the bells he currently rings are a mismatched set, cobbled together from the few that remained intact in Russia after 70 years of state atheism.

The monastery's original set was sold by Stalin to an American businessman at the height of the Soviet crackdown on religion. They've hung at Harvard University ever since.

The Church lost its voice
Father Roman

Now the monastery wants them back.

"The period from the late 1920s was a tragic time for the Church," Father Roman muses, surrounded by the vast replacement bells, dusted in early morning snow. "All over Russia churches were closed and extremely old and valuable bells were destroyed. The Church lost its voice."

The Danilov monastery was silenced along with thousands of others. Many of its monks were imprisoned or shot.

Danilov monastery
The monastery has now been expensively restored

The premises were finally returned to the Church under Mikhail Gorbachev and the monastery has since been lavishly restored. Today it's the official residence of the Patriarch but the Danilov monks say it remains incomplete.

"The bells are a link with our past; a past that was cut off, and is now being restored," Father Roman explains. "Getting the bells back would mark a new era. It would mark the resurrection of the monastery."

God's language

Gazing out from his office towards the salmon-pink bell tower, Archimandrite Aleksey is grateful to Harvard for preserving the original Danilov bells. But the monastery's Father Superior confesses he's now praying for their return.

"For us, the bells are not just some antique - they have spiritual significance," Aleksey explains. "They spoke in God's language. They used to call people to prayer. We are returning a sacred object and we pray to God that he helps us."

After decades of repression Russian Orthodoxy is enjoying a revival. At Sunday Mass the main church at the monastery is crowded with worshippers. Old women in headscarves shuffle between icons; gold handrails glimmer in the candlelight. Across the country, thousands of churches like it have been rescued and restored.

Holy event

Archimandrite Aleksey believes returning the Danilov bells to Moscow would symbolise the return of religion to Russia.

The Orthodox Church has raised the issue in the past, to no avail. Then last month a Danilov delegation travelled to Harvard for the first ever official negotiations.

As a result the university has agreed to conduct a feasibility study. If returning the bells proves logistically possible, the Danilov monastery would cover the costs and provide Harvard with a replacement set of bells.

"Of course that requires a huge amount of money," Archimandrite Aleksey admits. "So we have turned to all good willed people, to ask them to help us in funding this major and holy event."

Father Roman
The monks say the monastery is incomplete without the bells

That appeal for cash has ruffled a few feathers at Harvard, where the university's official line is that no decision has yet been made.

Michael Burstein was a bell ringer in the early 1990s and he's extremely reluctant to see the bells sent back. Michael believes they've become an irreplaceable part of Harvard's own history.

Spiritual

"When I was ringing the bells I felt like part of a very long tradition," Michael argues. "When you're in the tower you really feel that connection. I think the bells should stay where they are and the Russians should use the money to cast themselves a new set."

As the congregation from Sunday Mass spills out onto the monastery cobbles, few people in Moscow share that view.

"Of course the bells should be returned. What a strange question," one woman snorts. "They're obliged to return them!"

"According to the law, the bells belong to Harvard," another parishioner concedes thoughtfully. "But all moral and spiritual rights to the bells belong to us. I hope the Americans are ruled by their conscience, as Christians. Russia waits for her bells."



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