From RIA Novosti special correspondent/--The Russian Orthodox Church attaches great importance to Vladimir Putin's upcoming visit to Athos, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Cyril told RIA Novosti, who heads the External Links Department at the Moscow Patriarchate. According to the metropolitan, who travelled to Athos to make preparations for the Russian president's visit, the fact that the schedule of Putin's official visit to Greece envisages a trip to Athos on December 8 "proves that the Russian leadership is fully aware of how significant the Holy Mount is for both Russia and Greece and how much it can do for the relationship between these two Orthodox countries." Putin is the first Russian leader to pay a visit to the Holy Mount in the thousand-year history of relations between Athos and Russia. "Links between Athos and Russia were kept alive for 1,000 years," stressed the metropolitan. "The spirituality of Athos strengthened the religious life of our people. On the other hand, Russians enriched Athos with traditions of monastic life and with beautiful elements of Russian art and culture." Athos survived the period between the 16th and early 20th centuries mostly thanks to Russia's enormous political and financial support. In the 20th century, however, "Russian monasticism in Athos was greatly shaken and almost ceased to exist." According to Metropolitan Cyril, certain political forces in Greece blocked the inflow of Russian monks to Athos. Until recently, the Moscow Patriarchate was forced to wait several years before obtaining permission to send Russian monks to Athos. As a result of all these difficulties, Russian Church was forced out of St. Andrew's Retreat, one of the greatest monasteries of Athos, which was pillaged and destroyed after the death of the last Russian monk. But today, the situation is gradually improving. St. Panteleimon's Monastery is already inhabited by several dozen Russian monks. Other monasteries are being restored too. "Athos has always been and must always remain a link between two Orthodox countries, Russia and Greece," stressed the metropolitan.
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