A Russian Orthodox bishop has lowered a “holy memorial capsule” into the sea at the North Pole in an attempt to “consecrate” the Arctic and reassert Moscow’s claims to the territory.The service was held by Bishop Iakov on the ice alongside the nuclear icebreaker Rossiya during a polar expedition titled “Arctic-2012”, organised by the country’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.
The metal capsule carried the blessings of the church’s leader, bearing the inscription: “With the blessing of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, the consecration of the North Pole marks 1150 years of Russian Statehood.”
The Kremlin is keen to claim the hydrocarbon riches off its northern coast despite territorial claims from other governments, and is gradually re-militarising the area.
A conservative Moscow think-tank suggested in July that the Arctic Ocean should be renamed the “Russian Ocean” and this week it was announced that MiG-31 supersonic interceptor aircraft will be based in the region by the end of the year.
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, who says exploiting oil and gas reserves in the North is a “strategic priority”.
At the North Pole, the bishop’s service was attended by a small group of scientists and the Rossiya’s captain Oleg Shchapin.
It was held during an expedition to find a floe suitable for Russia’s 40th drifting polar research station and to deliver a 17-strong team to man the outpost for the next year.
The consecration earlier this month highlights Russia’s urge to claim international waters beyond its continental shelf because of underwater ridges it says are attached to the mainland.
Bishop Iakov, who is thought to be the first Russian priest to visit the pole, emphasised that the consecration symbolised efforts “to restore Russia’s position and confirm its achievements in the Arctic”.
In 2007, in another political move, Russia planted its flag on the seabed below the polar ice cap using a remotely operated mini-submarine, symbolically laying claim to the surrounding area.
The Rossiya carried on its voyage an icon and holy relics of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker, the patron saint of sailors, normally kept in the diocese’s main church on dry land.
Bishop Iakov was appointed last year as bishop of the newly created, most northerly diocese of Naryan-Mar and Mezen, which lies inside the Arctic Circle on the White and Barents Seas.
The diocese includes the islands of Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land, where airfields have recently been upgraded by the Russian Air Force as operational strategic bomber stations.
One airbase on Graham Bell Island boasts a 7,000-foot year-round compacted ice runway.
Bishop Iakov has taken part in other polar missions, sailing the length of the contested Northern Sea Route between Scandinavia and Alaska along Russia’s Arctic coast, which Russia claims and seeks to charge ships for using like the Panama Canal, but is regarded by most other countries as international waters.
In 2004 the bishop consecrated an Orthodox church in Antarctica at Russia’s Bellingshausen research base.
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