* Patriarch says Church and state are autonomous
* Pussy Riot trial fuels debate on Church role
By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW, Aug 16 The head of the Russian Orthodox
Church, who has called President Vladimir Putin's rule a
"miracle of God", defended its close ties with the state on
Friday against criticism fuelled by the trial of three members
of the Pussy Riot punk band.
In remarks published a day before a court issues its verdict
in the trial over the band's protest against the Church's
political role on a cathedral altar, Patriarch Kirill said the
Church and state were merely bound by a "common agenda".
The patriarch did not refer directly to Pussy Riot. But his
comments amounted to a firm rejection of the band's criticism,
which has triggered debate in Russia about whether the country's
dominant religion should play any role in politics.
"In Russia, possibly for the first time since the (1917
Bolshevik) revolution, the rule of the Church's separation from
the state, proclaimed as a result of the October Revolution, is
being followed quite closely," Kirill said in an interview with
Polish media before a visit to Poland.
"This means that the state, the authorities and the Church
are autonomous from each other. We are truly autonomous, we do
not interfere in one another's dealings and we cherish this
autonomy. The Russian Orthodox Church very much cherishes this
freedom and this autonomy that exists today."
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and
Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, burst into Moscow's Christ the
Saviour Cathedral on Feb. 21 and sang a protest urging the
Virgin Mary to "Throw Putin out!"
The protest united many Russian Orthodox believers in
outrage, but their trial has exposed deep rifts over the
Church's role in politics.
PUSSY RIOT TRIO FACE JAIL
The women could face three years in jail on charges of
hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in a case that has
also drawn international criticism over Moscow's record on human
rights and political freedoms.
The verdict due on Friday may overshadow Kirill's trip to
Poland, the first by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to
Russia's Roman Catholic western neighbour.
In a copy of the interview obtained by Reuters, Kirill
portrayed the Church's relationship as nothing out of the
ordinary. He said any "normal state" would share the Church's
interest in "questions of morality".
Putin's ruling United Russia party has, like the Church
hierarchy, sought to portray the Pussy Riot protest as immoral
The three women say they did not mean to offend Orthodox
believers, although many of them regard the cathedral as a
sacred place, and wanted to protest against the strengthening
links between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Christianity is the most popular religion in Russia, with
some 70 percent of the population describing themselves as
Russian Orthodox Christians, although far fewer regularly attend
Putin, a former KGB spy now back in the Kremlin as president
since May 7, has walked a thin line between promoting Orthodox
Christianity and celebrating a secular state of many religions.
The Russian Orthodox Church denies having any role in
politics. But about half of Russians believe it does, in fact,
play such a role, according to an opinion poll released on
Tuesday by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
The poll showed three quarters of respondents believe it
should stay out of politics, and many Russians have said they
were disturbed when Kirill, speaking before the March 4
presidential election, called Putin's rule a "miracle of God".