* 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
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
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
"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
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.