MOSCOW -- Baptized as a baby but an avowed atheist most of his life, President Boris N. Yeltsin returned to the Russian Orthodox Church yesterday, seeking spiritual renewal for himself and his nation.
Mr. Yeltsin, 61, attended Pentecost services at Trinity-Sergius Monastery northeast of Moscow, and then met with Patriarch Alexi II in a move that was not only personal but symbolized Russia's return to its strong religious heritage.
Speaking to pilgrims at the monastery, the seat of Russian Orthodoxy, Mr. Yeltsin called upon the nation to practice patience and humility and to strive for spiritual purification after more than seven decades of socialism and its atheistideology.
"I came here to undergo a cleansing before a long journey," Mr. Yeltsin said, referring directly to his trip this week to the United States and Canada but reflecting his return to religious belief.
In a television interview last week on the anniversary of his election as Russia's first president a year ago, Mr. Yeltsin acknowledged that, after years of atheism, he was again a believing Christian.
"I am acquiring a different world outlook which is probably connected with my psychological state and the situation in society," he said, describing his now-frequent attendance at church services as "normal -- I don't believe it should be made a special point of."
"In church I feel I become cleaner," Mr. Yeltsin continued. "This is the only place where you don't worry that something is happening at somewhere else.
Mr. Yeltsin recalled that he was "born into a farmer's family, my great grandfathers and grandfathers, my parents were believers. have something in my genes -- love of the land and a natural faith.
"Of course, while I was a communist," he added with a smile, "I was a sincere atheist."
In response to calls from the pilgrims outside Trinity Cathedral that he not resign as demanded by conservatives and remain president, Mr. Yeltsin replied, "Only the Lord can command me to resign -- I serve the Lord and the people."