* Russians divided over Church's role in politics
* Priests try to harness outrage to rally faithful
* Church says it is under siege
By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW, Aug 15 An anti-Kremlin protest by three women on the altar of Moscow's main cathedral has united many Russian Orthodox believers in outrage, but their trial has exposed deep rifts over the Church's role in politics.
On her way out of the Church of the Resurrection in a leafy neighbourhood of central Moscow, Nina Lefshukova pulled off her blue headscarf and sighed that the three members of the punk band Pussy Riot should just be freed.
"I would let them go and leave them in peace, but everyone knows it has more to do with politics than religion. It has more to do with the authorities," she said, folding up her blue Orthodox headscarf into a black bag.
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stormed into Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral on Feb. 21 and belted out a 'punk prayer', asking the Virgin Mary to "Throw Putin out!" They were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. A judge will deliver her verdict in a Moscow court on Friday.
The Church has called for "divine retribution" against the women.
The three say the protest was a way to fight President Vladimir Putin's tightly controlled political system and draw attention to the strengthening relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Today half of Russians believe the Church, which is led by Patriarch Kirill, has a hand in domestic politics, according to an opinion poll released on Tuesday by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, and 43 percent feel it interferes in foreign affairs.
The poll showed three quarters of respondents believe it should stay out of politics.
Many were disturbed when Kirill, speaking before the March 4 presidential election, called Putin a "miracle of God".
"When the patriarch supports a political cause, he loses something. He loses his authority as a spiritual leader. He is perceived as being on Putin's team, and the case with Pussy Riot shows how close the patriarch is to Putin," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on religion at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank.
"The Church is at a crossroads ... and believers are divided," he said.
Believers and analysts say the Church may have gained some support for its harsh stance against the protest, especially in the regions outside of Moscow, though the three women insist it was not aimed against the Church.
Sitting in a frescoed recess of the Kazan Cathedral, only steps away from the Kremlin on Red Square, Archbishop Igor Fomin said the protest had insulted churchgoers, but he likened their response - on a smaller scale - to the defiance shown by believers during decades of Soviet Communist rule.
"Persecution always makes people stronger, and it will cause a Russian's faith to rally during times of trouble," he said. "Our numbers and our congregation have increased. We have a full church of people."
Christianity is by far the most popular religion in Russia, with some 70 percent of the population saying they are Russian Orthodox Christians, though far fewer regularly attend church.
Soon after the Pussy Riot protest on Feb. 21, the Orthodox Church organised a day of solidarity in mid-April when at least 40,000 worshippers attended a day of prayer led by Kirill, who said the faith was "under attack by persecutors".
Those words ring true for some believers angry about a protest they say went too far in a sacred place of worship.
"It's disgusting what they did. Our priests can talk about forgiveness, but I don't have to," said Lyudmila Tarasova, visiting Moscow from the city of Murmansk in the Arctic Circle.
"They should be sent out of Russia. They spat on us. They're not Russians, they're swine."
Kirill himself is not without his critics. He has been accused in the media of leading a lavish lifestyle, and the Church apologised in April for doctoring a photograph of him to remove what bloggers said was a luxury wristwatch.
He has also come under scrutiny over a dispute linked to a Moscow apartment he owns, although he denies any wrongdoing and dismisses talk of a lavish lifestyle.
"I wasn't as offended by those girls as much as I am by some of our Church officials, who drive around in fancy cars and drop $1,000 for dinner at a fancy restaurant next to Christ the Saviour," said Dmitry Zykov, 45, outside of the Kazan Cathedral.
"There is political pressure involved here, either political pressure, or pressure from the regime straight from the top."
For some, a negative view of the Church survives since the fall of the Soviet Union, when it was given rights to import and sell cigarettes without paying import tax.
CHURCH UNDER SIEGE
Putin has walked a thin line between promoting Russian Orthodox Christianity and celebrating a secular state of many religions.
Despite the Patriarch's promotion of Putin before the election, the Church denies being involved in politics.
"Although they try to accuse us of advocating for the authorities, we're not trying to call on people to vote for the authorities, but for the path, the direction in which we must move," Archpriest Fomin said.
Others see the Pussy Riot protest as part of a plot against the country and Putin's 12-year rule.
"I think (the demonstration) was aimed at weakening Russia, whether from within or without. It follows a pattern in which the leadership of several countries is being toppled. Look at Syria," said Yekaterina Vasina, 28, an English and Chinese teacher at Moscow State University.