* Criticisms "politically charged", "anti-Russian"
* Foreign ministry says West underplayed religious outrage
* "Freedom of expression is not absolute"
MOSCOW, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Russia denounced foreign criticism of the trial of punk band Pussy Riot as politically motivated on Wednesday and said there were "elements of a clash of civilisations" in Western condemnation.
Three members of the band were sentenced to two years' jail last week for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" when they performed a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral, calling on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.
Western governments have said the sentences handed down to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were disproportionate. Rights groups and musicians have called for their release.
Critics of Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term on May 7 after a four-year spell as prime minister, say the Pussy Riot case illustrated his lack of tolerance of dissent.
"The case ... has served only as an occasion for the latest wave of rushed, biased and politically charged evaluations," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
"It seems that what is important to certain human rights structures and media outlets is not so much the fate of these young women as the opportunity to create yet another scandal on anti-Russian grounds," Lukashevich said.
He said the West must respect Russia's need to protect the "millions of Orthodox Christian believers and people of other faiths adhering to traditional concepts of morality" that he said had been offended by the protest.
"This situation, without a doubt, has elements of a clash of civilisations," the statement said.
"Many in the post-modern West forget about Europe's Christian roots and also do not want to respect the feelings of the followers of other faiths, thinking that religion limits democracy," Lukashevich said.
He said that international human rights conventions had established that "freedom of expression is not absolute" and stipulate that restrictions are needed to protect the security of nations and the well-being of their citizens.