MOSCOW - Ending a decades-long debate, the Russian Orthodox Church on Monday canonized Russia's last czar, Nicholas II, saying the haughty, cruel ruler died as a martyr to faith when he was executed 82 years ago.
The Archbishops Council, the church's highest body, also canonized Nicholas' wife, Alexandra, and the couple's four daughters and one son, all of whom were killed by a Bolshevik firing squad.
The decision closed a debate that began soon after they were slain in 1918 and two years after the czar's remains were ceremoniously buried in his former imperial capital, St. Petersburg.
Although Nicholas was reviled by many, he and his family deserved sainthood for their "meekness during imprisonment and poise and acceptance of their martyrs' death," according to a church statement.
The vote was unanimous, the Interfax news agency reported.
Nicholas abdicated as czar on March 15, 1917, as revolutionary fervor swept Russia. He and his family were detained, and in April 1918 they were sent to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, where a firing squad lined them up in the basement of a palace and killed them on July 17.
"In the last Russian Orthodox monarch and his family, we see people who sincerely tried to carry out the commandments of the Gospels in their lives," the statement said.
The Archbishops' Council also voted to canonize 853 other martyrs from the 20th century, many of them priests and monks killed by the Soviets.
The bishops' meeting was held in secrecy as they debated the czar's spiritual status in a gilded chamber of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a reconstruction of the cathedral that was dynamited under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Patriarch Alexy II and about 150 leaders took part in the meeting.
The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which split from the Moscow-based church in the 1920s, has already made Nicholas II a saint, and the issue had been a major obstacle to reuniting the two churches. During their gathering in Moscow, scheduled to last several days, the bishops also were to consider the Russian church's relations with other denominations.
Canonizing the royal family as so-called "passion bearers" - the lowest level of sainthood - appeased supporters of Nicholas II, especially nationalists who want a return to the monarchy, without endorsing the way he ruled, church officials had said earlier.
Nicholas II was the fourth Russian czar to be canonized; the other three ruled in the Middle Ages.
Many believers already considered Nicholas II holy and have said an icon depicting his image shed miraculous tears in a Moscow church.
Alexy II said canonization will not put to rest a dispute over the authenticity of royal remains. Five sets of remains were exhumed from a shallow forest grave outside Yekaterinburg in 1991 and genetic testing confirmed their identity as the czar, his wife and three children. Two bodies were never found.
But the church did not recognize these bones as belonging to the czar. After canonization, the remains would become holy relics.
"We have doubts about the authenticity of the remains and cannot call on believers to worship pseudo-relics," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Alexy II as saying.