Is Russia's Orthodox Church privileged or persecuted?

Moscow, Russia - Tens of thousands of people attended special services across Russia yesterday – about 50,000 in Moscow alone – to pray in defense of the Russian Orthodox Church, which insists that it is facing an unprecedented attack from irreligious social forces that are out to destroy its reputation and undermine the nation's faith.

The Moscow prayer meeting at the cavernous Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a stone's throw from the Kremlin, was led by Patriarch Kirill, whose lifestyle, formerly off-limits, has become the subject of public scrutiny and a roiling controversy over his alleged job perks and wealth.

Kirill told the huge crowd that the church had to respond to a spate of sacrilegious challenges that began in February when a women's punk rock group entered the same cathedral – which was almost empty at the time – and performed an obscenity-laced "punk prayer" to protest the church's alleged support for the electoral campaign of Vladimir Putin.

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"We are under attack by persecutors," Kirill said. "The danger is in the very fact that blasphemy, derision of the sacred is put forth as a lawful expression of human freedom which must be protected in a modern society."

Three members of the band were arrested, and could face up to seven years in prison for the impromptu performance. The incident, and the subsequent trial of the women, has blown open a long-simmering debate about the social role of the church, its allegedly cozy links with the Kremlin, and the way Russia's "anti-extremist" laws are often invoked to protect the church from criticism or artistic commentary that would pass largely unnoticed in most Western societies.

"This incident with the punk group opened the floodgates of public discussion about the church, and it has taken forms that are new for Russia," says Viktor Michaelson, a political scientist with the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow. "People on both sides feel deeply engaged in it. Liberal and secular people feel one way, religious people feel another way. It's far from over."

Liberal critics say the punk band, provocatively named Pussy Riot, violated no laws at all, and that the only reason the women now face stiff jail sentences is because the church is able to get its way in Russian courts and wants a tough example set in order to deter any repetition.

"Pussy Riot performed in an empty church. They left peacefully when a priest ordered them to go. The only violation they committed was of a church rule that no woman can penetrate the altar space," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, an expert with For Human Rights, a Moscow-based public movement. "People understand these women have been imprisoned for purely political reasons. This is about the church splitting society to prove it is stronger, has more followers than supporters of a secular state do. In fact, the church is behaving as part of a repressive state machine."

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading church spokesman, denies the church has any influence over the outcome of the trial of the punk rock group and he does not personally favor tough punishment for it. But he adds that "the feelings of religious believers must be protected…. The law must make certain that this sort of desecration is not repeated."

Mr. Chaplin argues that Western attitudes, which take a lenient view of "blasphemous" artistic expressions, are wrong and not suitable for Russia. "We survived mass desecrations in Soviet times, and it's clear that [the atheism] of Soviet leaders contributed to the collapse of the USSR," he says. "The West is wrong to allow actions that cast down public morality. . . Rules protecting sacred objects and places must be strict. Such crimes are extremely dangerous because they can lead to a breakdown in public order."

Since the punk rock incident, according to Kirill, there has been a string of "hooligan attacks" on priests and churches, including one case in the northern Russian town of Veliky Ustug, where a man allegedly chopped up 30 icons with an axe, and another in the southern town of Nevinnomyssk, where a priest was assaulted and an altar desecrated.

Critics allege that religious leaders are really upset about growing public criticism of the church and recent scrutiny of the lavish lifestyles of top church officials, including Kirill.

Though the Russian government has quietly handed back to the church vast amounts of land, property, and artifacts formerly held by state museums, the Russian media recently gave unexpectedly critical coverage to a decision that would give half of a functioning Moscow-area children's hospital to the church for inclusion in a monastery.

The press also ran embarrassing stories this winter about Patriarch Kirill's court battle with former health minister Yury Shevchenko over an allegedly botched renovation of Kirill's sumptuous downtown Moscow apartment, which resulted in Mr. Shevchenko having to pay the Patriarch nearly $700,000 in damages. For most Russians, who still inhabit cramped little Soviet-era flats, the revelations about the scale and sheer luxury of Kirill's private accommodations were eye-popping.

"These revelations in the media are viewed by believers as part of an orchestrated campaign against the church," says Mr. Michaelson. "For many Russians, the church is much more than just a political institution, and they feel very insulted by this [media attention]."

Perhaps most painful – because it was largely self-inflicted – was a blogger's allegation that Kirill owned a $40,000 Breguet watch, a claim that the Patriarch initially denied. Then bloggers found a photo of Kirill wearing the watch on an official church website. The timepiece was subsequently airbrushed out of the photo by a church technician. It was a sloppy job – while Kirill's wrist appeared clean, a clear reflection of the watch remained in the polished oak table and the retouched picture went viral.

"All this activity, with the church trying to mobilize its parishioners to support it, is not about the [punk rock] case, but something much larger," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"The Russian Orthodox Church is terrified that there will be a real process of secularization here, such as has happened in Europe. It's not impressed with the results the Catholic Church has obtained in Europe, by compromising with civil society and embracing more tolerance. The Russian Church wants to preserve its historic identity, side by side with the Russian state, in which it supports the state and the state supports it. It doesn't want to embrace any change, or accept any new trends. Increasingly, it sees the modern, or liberal part of society as its adversary," Mr. Makarkin says.