MOSCOW (UPI)--Many churchgoers in the central Russian village of Vedeniya looked in awe when a local priest decorated the crosses atop their church with swastikas. Father Sergiy, however, did not find anything offensive in adorning the church dome with the symbol most often associated in Russia with Nazi ideology.

On the contrary, the clergyman told Russia's NTV television network Sunday that his intention was to introduce swastikas in order to educate his congregation.

"The swastika is an old Eastern Orthodox symbol that has nothing to do with fascism," the priest said.

When a local division of the state-run agency for protection of cultural monuments urged Sergiy's superiors to order him to remove the ambiguous symbols, the clergyman hardly budged.

"Having heard these artificially generated noises, they asked me to hide these symbols a bit, arguing that the people have not matured yet," the priest said.

"The thing is, how and when can people mature? A priest has to pave the way, he has to be the first in everything."

A former naval officer who served on a submarine, Sergiy became a priest after quitting the navy, but never bothered to hide his support for Russia's ultra-nationalist movements.

At one time the priest was an avid supporter of Pamyat ("The Memory"), the radical movement headed by nationalist Dmitry Vasilyev.

The movement propagated the restoration of a czarist monarchy in Russia and declared as its chief task the fight against Zionism, calling on its supporters to purge the Jews living in Russia.

Later on, Sergiy became a backer of Russian National Unity, a movement headed by Vasilyev's ex-body guard Alexandr Barkashov, who broke away from Pamyat in 1990 to create his own camp of radical nationalists.

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