MOSCOW — Over 2,000 people rallied in St. Petersburg on Saturday to protest plans by the city authorities to give a landmark cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church amid an increasingly passionate debate over the relationship between the church and state.

“We won’t give St. Isaac’s to the church. We want to save it as a museum,” Boris Vishnevsky, a local official, told protesters in central St. Petersburg.

“St. Isaac’s Cathedral is part of our cultural heritage. There are so many valuable exhibits that require the work of museum specialists. The Russian Orthodox Church does not have those specialists,” said Irina Azbel, 43, a doctor, who was among those protesting.

The rally was significantly larger than a similar demonstration attended by several hundred people earlier this month, although local police stated the number was under 2,000. “Don’t steal” one placard read.

A few dozen counter-protesters gathered in the same place to support the plans. “The return of the cathedral to the church is a return to our national roots,” said Yelena Semyonova, 52, a professor.

The announcement earlier this month that the neoclassical St Isaac’s Cathedral, which is currently run as a museum, will be put under Orthodox Church ownership sparked a growing backlash from city residents. More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the city authorities to reconsider.

Prominent cultural figures including the director of the St. Petersburg’s world-renowned Hermitage Museum have criticized the decision.

St Isaac’s, one of the most visited tourist sites in Russia’s old imperial capital, has been a museum since 1917. Some experts are concerned that the Orthodox Church will neglect the exhibits on display, which include a rare Foucault pendulum.

The transfer of St. Isaac’s has been seen as part of the growing power of the Orthodox Church and a trend of social conservatism in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has appealed to traditional values as opposed to Western liberalism to help tighten his grip on society.

Forming a better relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church has been a longtime goal of the Vatican, especially under recent popes, including Francis’s first-ever summit with the Patriarch of Moscow in Havana in February 2016. That outreach comes despite persistent accusations from the Russian Orthodox of Catholic “proselytism,” especially in Ukraine, which Moscow considers its historic territory.

Crux staff contributed to this report.