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.
"We have — quite the opposite — teachings about harmony, cooperation and agreement between the state and the church."
He also stressed, however, that the church should not become "part of the state machinery."
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev denied that the Orthodox church influences Kremlin policy when he made an unexpected appearance on a popular television talk show this summer.
'Yes, the church occupies a fitting place in the life of our society and government," he said.
"But no one knows better than me that it is separate from decision-making," added Mr. Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 until May of this year.
The vanishing watch
With tens of thousands of demonstrators marching in anti-Putin protests in recent months, the Orthodox church also has been attacked during the startling rise in political activism over allegations of corruption and the perceived luxurious lifestyles of its leaders.
Patriarch Kirill came under fire in April after he insisted in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn a $30,000 Breguet watch that he received as a gift. He suggested that any photographs of him wearing the watch must have been doctored.
However, attentive bloggers quickly discovered a photograph on the church’s official website of Patriarch Kirill with the expensive watch on his wrist. Less than 24 hours later, the timepiece had been airbrushed out of the photograph. Unfortunately for the church, the inattentive editor left intact the telltale reflection of the luxury wristwatch on a varnished table, sparking weeks of online mockery.
Patriarch Kirill responded to this growing criticism of the church by calling a nationwide day of prayer in April. About 40,000 people attended a mass prayer outside the Christ the Savior Cathedral, where the patriarch urged attendees to defend what he said was an Orthodox church "under attack by persecutors."
Although some 70 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, many see the church as a mere extension of statehood. A report by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center pollster indicated this week that 30 percent of those who identified themselves as Orthodox Christians did not, in fact, believe in God.
"One shouldn’t be misled by the amount of people who identify themselves as Orthodox believers," said Ms. Lipman, the Carnegie Center analyst. "For many of them, this is simply a way to identify themselves as Russians."