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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 15:37 GMT
Russian church on rail mission
A prayer in Old Church Slavonic adorns the side of the carriage
A prayer in Church Slavonic adorns the the carriage

By News Online's Stephen Mulvey

A church in a railway wagon was to have held its first mass on Friday in the icy wastes of northern Russia.

The gilded carriage - beset with icons and stained glass windows - set off from Moscow on Thursday after a blessing from the Russian patriarch, Alexy II.

"We bless this church to help people return to their faith," he said.

The church on wheels is the first to be produced in Russia for more than 100 years - an earlier version was ordered by Tsar Nicholas II in 1896 to take religion to the faithless Siberian hinterlands.

The Russian Orthodox hierarchy sees mobile churches as an antidote to missionaries from the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and other foreign evangelical churches, who have won many Russian converts.

Bells

It is the result of an expensive six-month re-fit of a conventional sleeper carriage, by a factory famous for making luxurious compartments for the rulers of the USSR.

Russian villagers may live many miles from the nearest church
Russian villagers may live many miles from the nearest church
The cost of the gold leaf alone was two million roubles ($70,000). It's all being paid for by the Russian railways ministry.

Two large icons of the Mother and Child adorn the outer sides of the carriage.

Inside, a worshipper walks along a typical narrow corridor into one sumptuously decorated room, complete with pulpit, altar, and bells hanging from the ceiling.

The furnishings include a choirstall, from where 12 trainee clerics will provide the music for weddings, funerals, christenings and prayer services.

Antidote

One orthodox priest who accompanied Alexy II during the blessing ceremony described the carriage as "even better than some churches".

The patriarch said it would help continue the return of religion to Russian towns and villages, where some 12,000 churches have been restored, built or renovated in the 10 years since the atheist Soviet state crumbled.

Churches have also been built on boats and barges that ply the Volga and Ob rivers.

There has also been talk of building another church on wheels to take religion to remote areas of Russia's Far East.

Spiritual support

The decline of communism, and the unravelling of Soviet society, has left many people searching for a new set of values, and sometimes for spiritual support.

During Russia's 70 years of communism religious worship was discouraged, and could be punishable.

Churches were often transformed into warehouses, or museums of atheism.

Railways, meanwhile, were seen as a useful way to spread the communist ideology, with agitation trains spreading the message around rural areas.

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14 Aug 00 | Europe
Sainthood for last tsar
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