Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill led some 100,000 people in a nightime procession Tuesday to mark 100 years since the Bolsheviks murdered tsar Nicholas II and his family, amid a simmering conflict between the state and the Church over their remains.
The procession began in the early hours of Tuesday from the murder site in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg to a monastery commemorating the slain tsar, his German-born wife and five children, regional authorities said.
Many of the fervent believers came from across Russia and abroad to take part in the colourful ceremony during which many carried icons.
Another 20,000 people joined the commemorations when the procession arrived at the monastery in Ganina Yama after covering the distance of 21 kilometres (13 miles), regional authorities said.
The monastery was built at one of the sites where the burnt bodies of the last Russian tsar and his family were taken after their execution in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, although they were later moved.
The Bolsheviks shot the abdicated tsar, his wife and their five children along with their servants and doctor on the night of July 16 to 17, 1918 as they were living under guard in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg.
Addressing the pilgrims, Patriarch Kirill said Russia should draw lessons "from this difficult and bitter experience."
"We truly should have lasting immunity against any ideas and any leaders who call on us to embrace some new, unknown happy future through the destruction of our life, our traditions and our faith," the 71-year-old powerful Church leader said in a possible dig at the opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin planned no official commemorations although officials from culture and defence ministries were scheduled to take part in a memorial event in Moscow.
The regional authorities said the popularity of the annual event has grown steadily over the past years, adding that just 2,000 people took part in a similar procession in 2002.
- State growing exasperated -
The Russian Orthodox Church is still divided over the authenticity of the remains of the family, whose members were all made saints in 2000.
The bones of Nicholas, his wife and three of their children were interred in Saint Petersburg in 1998 but the Orthodox Church refused to give them a full burial service.
The remains of the tsar's only son Alexei and his daughter Maria were found separately in 2007 and have never been buried.
Their charred remains were kept in the Federal Archives before they were handed to the Church in 2015.
For the Russian Orthodox Church the issue is extremely sensitive because it has canonised the ex-tsar and his family as martyrs, making their bones holy relics.
Clerics also fear alienating numerous people who believe in multiple legends including that one or more of the children may have survived.
Ksenia Luchenko, an expert on the Russian Orthodox Church, said the Kremlin had little interest in celebrating the centenary because Nicolas's "unsuccessful reign and meek passing" could not be used for propaganda purposes.
But she said Moscow authorities were growing exasperated with the persistent refusal of the Church to recognise the remains of the tsar and his family.
"The state has for many years wanted to finally put the matter to rest - to bury all of Nicholas II's children next to their parents," she wrote in a column for the liberal daily Vedomosti.
On Monday investigators announced that fresh genetic tests on bones of Russia's last tsar and his family had confirmed their authenticity, a sign Luchenko said that the authorities' patience with the Church may be running thin.
The tests involved exhuming Nicholas's father Alexander III, proving "they are father and son," investigators said.
Tikhon Shevkunov, the senior cleric put in charge of the Church investigation and who is reportedly close to Putin, said Monday the results of the DNA tests would be taken into account.