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Mourning Period for Russian School Siege Ends with Memorials, Prayers - 2004-10-12

Orthodox Christians in Russia are marking the end of the 40-day mourning period for the more than 300 people, half of them children, killed in the siege of a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. There are fears that in the days to come some people could seek to carry out revenge attacks, but the Russian government and religious leaders have called for peace.

Orthodox Christians believe that a person's soul rises to the heavens on the 40th day after death. So, thousands of people across Russia are visiting cathedrals or the mass grave site in Beslan to observe memorial services and pay last respects to their loved ones.

"They were such good boys," said a woman, who lost her twin grandsons in the hostage-taking. "we will never forget them. It is such a hard, hard day."

For the most part, the memorials are private. But Russian television is awash with images of the school where heavily-armed militants held more than 1,000 people hostage for three days before Russian federal forces stormed the building.

The television pictures show the piles upon piles of flowers, candles, and stuffed animals people have left at the memorial site. In an unusual tribute, many people left stacks of bottled water, which the hostages were denied during their ordeal.

At one such memorial service in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, an Orthodox priest urged the mourners to turn their grief toward thoughts of peace.

The priest said it is still a difficult time for everyone who had to see their children or family member killed in such a horrific way. But he said the main thing now is to keep calm no matter how hard it is. He also noted that trusting a higher power, be it God or the government, will be difficult but necessary.

Fearing the possibility of revenge attacks following the end of the mourning period, the Russian government has sent hundreds of extra police and troops to North Ossetia.

The hostage-takers, reportedly acting under the orders of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, included some Ingush. And the fear now is that North Ossetians will carry out their threats to seek revenge on the rival Ingush ethnic group.

The Ingush, closely related to Chechens, are mainly Muslim, while Ossetians are overwhelmingly Christian.

Last week during a rare meeting in Moscow, Russian Orthodox church leaders agreed that terrorism was rooted in, what they called, "the moral vacuum" of the modern world. The church leaders said that more attention needs to be paid to the spiritual education of society through the national education system and the media.