MOSCOW - In Moscow, a sprawling city with highly-prized green spaces, hundreds of locals are up in arms to defend a park against what they claim is an illegal landgrab by Russia's powerful Orthodox Church.
Dmitry Fedotov, a 28-year-old engineer who lives near northern Moscow's Torfyanka park, joined protesters last week to denounce the church's bid to build a chapel there, as part of a drive to erect 200 churches across the Russian capital.
"The law forbids construction projects in public parks," Fedotov told AFP.
"But the Church just goes ahead and takes public green space without consultation. It can do no wrong in the eyes of authorities." Tempers have frayed over the dispute between local demonstrators and Orthodox activists, who have set up guard at the construction site.
Work on the site was halted last month after tensions culminated in physical confrontations.
Defenders of the project, led by Orthodox activist Andrei Kormukhin, have insisted that the Church serves as the guardian of conversative values, a cornerstone of the Kremlin's domestic policies.
Kormukhin has accused opponents of the project of brewing a Western-orchestrated uprising to undermine Russia's sovereignty.
"The church will make the park cleaner by making the people kinder and more cultured," Kormukhin said, denying reporters access to the guarded site where women in headscarves and Cossacks in camouflage had gathered around a wooden cross.
The Church was suppressed and religious believers persecuted during the Soviet era. Many churches were destroyed or converted into secular buildings.
More than 23,000 churches that had been demolished or fallen into disuse were rebuilt in the first two decades of the post-Soviet era, the Orthodox Church has claimed.
But the Church's influence has grown dramatically under the rule of President Vladimir Putin, who approved the restitution of the Orthodox Church's property early in his first term.
Now under the former KGB agent, the Orthodox Church and the state have since formed a symbiotic relationship.
Fusion of Church and state
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, often makes incursions into politics, blurring the constitutional separation between Church and state.
Russian state media seek his views on topics ranging from abortion to pop music competitions. And when the Kremlin endorses controversial legislation, including a 2013 law criminalising insults to religious sentiments, the Church is certain to offer its support.
"Only believers can have their feelings insulted under Russian law," Fedotov said. "But what about the feelings of other people? Do they have the right to be offended?" The patriarch - who said that Putin's rule was a "miracle of God" ahead of his reelection in 2012 - has claimed that Moscow needs an extra 571 churches for there to be one church for every 11,200 people, the regional average in the country.
But Muscovites have shown little appetite for more religious architecture and monuments.
Local activist Oleg Larin claims residents have protested against the construction of more than half of the 20 churches that have been completed under the plan to build 200 new places of worship.
More than 60,000 people signed an online petition last month against hoisting a 24-metre (80-foot) high sculpture of Prince Vladimir, the Orthodox saint credited for bringing Christianity to Russia in the 10th century, on a hill overlooking the city.
Municipal authorities yielded and are now scrambling to find a home for the sculpture.
But the disagreements are over more than statues and churches.
"The Church does not only occupy some kind of spiritual function in people's lives. It is a huge political and economic institution in today's Russia," said lawyer Anatoly Pchelintsev, who serves in the Russian parliament's committee on public and religious organisations.
"When deputies run for office, they seek the Church's support. It is also one of the richest institutions in our state. This has alienated many people." According to a Levada Center survey in 2013, one quarter of Russians think the Orthodox Church plays too great a role in the public sphere.
Another 48 percent of the population, however, think that the Church's role in society is not excessive.
Another poll found that despite a general increase in religious sentiment, a mere 14 percent of Russians attend church at least once a month.
"Moscow's churches cannot be filled, even on holidays," Pchelintsev said. "The intelligentsia and the general population don't understand why more churches should be built." A court will rule on the fate of Torfyanka park later this month. In the meantime, locals have pledged to keep fighting for their green space.
"Let people have places where they can relax," said 69-year-old Lyudmila Arutyunova, protesting in slippers and a nightgown. "You can't take the land from the people."