RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin has pledged to help the ex-gays of Russia who have been persecuted by authorities in the former Soviet Union, and has promised to “open up” Russian parishes to same-sex couples.

In a wide-ranging speech to the state Duma on Sunday, Putin vowed to lift restrictions on parishes and religious institutions, and to “allow them to operate in all areas of life.”

“We will open up parishes, religious institutions and parishes with all our hearts, and I will support the gay people,” Putin said.

“There are many gay people and we will not hesitate to open them up to others, especially to them who are seeking happiness and fulfilment in life.”

Putin also vowed to support gay couples and gay rights activists in Russia.

He called on the Kremlin to “provide all possible help to the exes of our society,” including “financial support.”

The Kremlin said on Monday that Putin was in Moscow to attend the annual New Year’s Eve celebrations and “to celebrate the New Year with his family.”

He is scheduled to attend a parade in the Russian city of Volgograd on Wednesday, where thousands of gay people will march in support of equality and human rights, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

The Russian president said in his speech that he had a “long-standing desire to help” the excommunicated.

“I have a long-standing wish for Russia to be a more tolerant society, and the exiles of our country, and we want to help them.

It is a very long-term aspiration,” he said.

Putin’s remarks come amid a rise in Russian LGBT rights groups.

The Moscow Patriarchate issued a statement saying that Putin “gave a special welcome to all people, and also to those who have sought a special religious experience.”

“For the first time in our history, a Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is taking part in a New Year celebration.

And he was in fact very happy to have a look at those who had entered the Church, especially in the form of ex-priests,” Patriarch Kirill said.