Alexis Tsipras Vladimir Putin .jpg
Photograph: EPA/ALEXANDROS VLACHOS

On the second day of his trip to Greece, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Mount Athos, also known as the Holy Mountain, which is home to numerous monasteries and sacred sites for Orthodox Christians.

ERT state television reported that Putin attended on Saturday a brief religious service in Karyes, the main settlement on Mount Athos, which exists as an autonomous monastic state within Greece.

The Russian president was accompanied by his Greek counterpart, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, took part in the religious service at the head of a delegation of dozens of Russian Orthodox clerics.

This year marks the millennium of the presence of Russian monks on Mount Athos: the monastic state's archives first record a Russian abbot of a monastery in 1016, according to a statement from the state's administrative chief.

On Friday evening, Putin and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said they wanted to strengthen bilateral ties.

Putin said he would like a planned natural gas pipeline to Greece via the Black Sea to go ahead, despite tensions with Turkey over Syria.

Russia regarded expansion by NATO - an alliance to which both Greece and Turkey belong - as alarming, Putin was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying. He threatened retaliation for the stationing of US air-defence missiles in Romania.

Russian firms expressed an interest in investing in a raft of privatizations that form part of Greece's bail-out deal with international creditors, especially the railways and Thessaloniki port, Putin said.

Putin also said Russians like to spend their holidays in Greece. "One million Russian are expected (in Greece) this year," Putin said.

Russia and Greece have a shared spiritual heritage through Orthodox Christianity. Diplomatic sources in Athens say Putin's pilgrimage to Athos is part of his policy of exploiting the church to enhance his image at home. Tsipras' overtures towards Russia are also seen as playing well with voters in Greece.

Tsipras' welcome to Putin stands in marked contrast to the rest of the European Union, which has slapped sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

Russia's own financial difficulties mean that it will not be able to come to Greece's rescue, Tsipras conceded Friday evening. The Greek premier said his country's roots were deeply imbedded in Europe, the West and NATO, but this did not mean that he could not extend ties in eastern Europe.

Putin also met opposition conservative politician Kyriakos Mitsotakis late Friday, and expressed the hope that the opposition would support the joint goals it had agreed with the government, ERT reported.

Putin was later scheduled to visit Saint Panteleimon Monastery and the mostly Russian monks who reside there.

He was expected to return to Moscow in the evening.

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