- - Monday, August 13, 2012

MOSCOW — The Russian Orthodox Church is enjoying its newfound prestige with the Russian government.

The head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, was granted residence in the Kremlin, the elaborate historic fortress in Moscow and seat of the Russian government, late last year, and he openly supported Vladimir Putin, who won a third term as president in March.

But the church’s closeness to the government also has made it a target of criticism and protest.

Three young women who stormed into Moscow’s largest cathedral in February to perform a raucous “punk prayer” against Mr. Putin could be sent to prison this week in a trial that critics say has highlighted the growing ties between the Kremlin and the head of Russia’s powerful Orthodox church.

After the notorious performance, the women, members of a female punk-rock band, issued a statement criticizing the church as a “weapon in a dirty election campaign” and called Mr. Putin “a man who is as far as can be from God’s truth.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22; Maria Alyokhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were arrested weeks after their cathedral protest and charged with “hooliganism.” Prosecutors dismissed their claims that their performance was a political statement and accused them of insulting the Orthodox religion and trying to “incite religious hatred.”

‘Miracle from God’

They acted after Patriarch Kirill called Mr. Putin a “miracle from God” who had “rectified the crooked path of history.” Mr. Putin won a landslide victory.

The case has rapidly become both one of the most politically charged legal sagas in modern Russia and a cause for international free-speech advocates. The verdict in the trial will be announced Friday at a downtown Moscow court. Prosecutors are seeking a three-year prison sentence against each defendant.

“I don’t know whether this support for Putin was Patriarch Kirill’s own political calculation or there was some pressure from the Kremlin or Putin’s campaign team,” said Andrei Zolotov, a journalist and analyst on the Orthodox Church’s relations with society.
“The modern Russian state has lacked a certain legitimacy since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it tries to use the church’s undisputed historical continuity as a way to counter this,” Mr. Zolotov said.

Patriarch Kirill’s endorsement of Mr. Putin was the culmination of a dramatic deepening of ties between the Orthodox church and the Kremlin since the 1991 collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union.

“The government relies on the church for loyalty and support, and the church has always relied on the state’s generosity,” said Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think tank. “During Putin’s election campaign, a number of decisions were made that were beneficial to the church, including on real estate and backing for religious schools.”

The 65-year-old patriarch also was granted official residence at the Kremlin in late 2011, a move that restored the head of the church to a residence the church lost in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The Russian Constitution stipulates the separation of church and state, but leading Orthodox officials have made no secret of their desire for even closer “cooperation” with the authorities.

“Our church does not consider itself an enemy of the state. The Western idea that the state and the church should be slight rivals and slight enemies is both bizarre and incorrect from an Orthodox point of view,” Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading Orthodox church official, said in June.

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