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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits top Buddhist monastery

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Russia's top Buddhist monastery, where he told monks the government would support them despite the economic crisis. The Buddhist monks in turn pledged full allegiance to Medvedev, the first Russian leader to visit the remote Ivolginsky Monastery in eastern Siberia in 16 years. Dozens of monks wearing bright purple and orange robes and holding white and blue scarves in their hands stood in two lines along a red carpet to welcome the president as his black Mercedes stopped at the monastery's gates. Sitting down for tea with milk alongside Russia's top monks later, Medvedev said they did not need to accept foreign aid even during crisis.

"Our country is very strong, powerful and has a versatile economy. So we will get through all the problems," Medvedev said.

"We have our own resources to help the development of the traditional religions that have existed in Russia for centuries.

"And my visit to you is proof yet again that relations between traditional faiths, religions and the state are on the right track."

Medvedev made the comments on a visit to Buryatia, a region near Mongolia and one of several traditionally Buddhist parts of Russia.

Damba Ayusheyev, the spiritual leader of Buryatia's Buddhists, told the president that Buddhist monks were self-sufficient and did not need any outside help.

Their only goal is "to serve faithfully" and "ask nothing in return", he said.

Foreign teachers, particularly Tibetan monks, played a large role in the revival of Buddhism in Russia after the collapse of the atheist Soviet regime in 1991.

There are about a million Buddhists in Russia, where the predominant religion is Orthodox Christianity. Most of them live in Siberia.

Buddhism faced brutal purges during the Soviet era, when authorities closed many monasteries. But since 1991 it has experienced a relative revival with support from the state, and Russian authorities are even planning to have Buddhist lamas on hand to serve as military chaplains in the army.

Ayusheyev, who is known as the Khambo Lama, said that the president's visit was a great honour for the monastery and that the Kremlin chief had the whole-hearted support of Russia's Buddhists.

"To lead such a country, have such a responsibility – it would be hard for any man and Buddhists must support him," he told reporters.

Medvedev's predecessor Vladimir Putin never visited the monastery, though Boris Yeltsin came there in 1993. Built in 1946, the Ivolginsky Monastery is seen as the most important centre of Buddhism in Russia. Medvedev said money would be available to rebuild more monasteries. "This is where the revival of the Russian Buddhism has started after many years of persecutions," he said.

Located near Lake Baikal against a backdrop of mountains, the Ivolginsky Monastery is home to the remarkably wellpreserved body of the 12th Khambo Lama, who died in 1927. The body – still seated in the lotus position – is shown to pilgrims only seven times a year but the monks made an exception for Medvedev, letting the president sneak a peak at their top relic.

Medvedev was also shown a statue of the White Tara, a seven eyed female Buddha of longevity whose embodiment he is believed to be.

Russia's Buddhists consider the country's leaders to be embodiments of the female Buddha, a belief that dates back to the 18th century when the Empress Elizabeth officially recognized the religion.

"It's very hard to understand this for non-Buddhists and even for some Buddhists too," said Ayusheyev. At the end of Medvedev's visit, the monks came out to wave him goodbye, with many pulling mobile phones out from under their robes to snap pictures of the Kremlin chief boarding a helicopter.

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