Paris (AFP) - Russia unveiled a new state-financed Orthodox cathedral complex in a prime position near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Wednesday 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 ($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 on Wednesday, 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.
- Politics and religion -
Only the cultural centre was officially opened on Wednesday, 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.
Antoine Arjakovsky, an Orthodox historian in Paris, commented on the "strange and problematic ambiguity" of the project, financed by a theoretically secular Russian state.
Speaking to AFP, he said it "mixes religion and politics a stone's throw from the Elysee (presidential palace) and the foreign ministry".
Paris already has an Orthodox cathedral, the Saint Alexandre Nevsky built by the Russian community in 1861, but it is aligned with a different branch of Orthodoxy based in Istanbul.
Until 1931, it was aligned with Moscow but has since refused to return, seeing the Russian church as more socially conservative and politicised.
"You could link this project to pastoral needs, but it also likely a desire by Russia to open a cultural and religious showpiece in Paris beyond its embassy," writer and Orthodox priest Christophe Levalois told AFP.
As well as opening at a difficult time in Franco-Russian relations, the striking new place of worship was unveiled as France engages in a feverish debate about the role of religion in public life after a string of attacks by Islamic extremists.
Last week, Hollande was quoted in a book as saying there was a "problem with Islam" in France because it required holy sites and recognition.
"It's not Islam that poses a problem in the sense of its being a religion that is dangerous in itself, but because it wants to assert itself as a religion in the republic," he was quoted as saying in: "Un president ne devrait pas dire ca" ("A president shouldn't say this").