Russia unveiled a new state-financed Orthodox cathedral complex in a prime position near the Eiffel Tower in Paris today without the intended guest of honour, President Vladimir Putin.
He cancelled his trip last week after French President Francois Hollande said Russia's bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo could amount to war crimes.
In a statement from Moscow, Putin said the more than 100-million euro (USD 110 million) complex, built around the cathedral which has five golden domes, was a "visible testament to the cultural and human ties between France and Russia".
The theme was taken up by speakers at the low-key event today, where Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky overlooked current tensions to say the project was "testament to the solidity of our bilateral relations."
The Saint-Trinite cathedral, which will be consecrated by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church in December, sits on a prime location by the river Seine and is a striking illustration of Kremlin support for its national church.
It has raised eyebrows not only because its five giant cupolas covered with 90,000 sheets of gold leaf rise up in front of the Eiffel Tower when viewed from the surrounding area.
The project has also reportedly sparked concerns among France's intelligence agencies because of its proximity to nearby government buildings, including the foreign ministry just a short walk along the Seine.
Putin has given it strong political and financial backing, acknowledging it was "very difficult" to realise but thanking France for its "continuous support".
The Russian president has developed close bonds with the powerful Russian Orthodox church, whose patriarch Kirill has backed him personally and his policies such as military intervention in Syria.
"We thank President Putin in particular. Without his personal commitment, it would never have happened," said bishop Antoine from the town of Bogorodsk, who was representing patriarch Kirill at the ceremony.
Only the cultural centre was officially opened today, but journalists were allowed inside the cathedral for the first time ahead of its consecration on December 4.
The growing Orthodox community in France, swelled by immigration from Russia as well as the Middle East and the Balkans, is not united behind the new cathedral, which will only be fully completed in 2017.
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