Russian Orthodox Church under attack, Patriarch Kirill tells huge Moscow crowd
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church warned tens of thousands of believers on Sunday they were “under attack by persecutors” on a nationwide day of prayer intended to heal divisions over a protest at the altar by a women’s punk band.
At least 40,000 people came to hear Patriarch Kirill lead them in prayer at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, where Pussy Riot performed a “punk prayer” on February 21 deriding the Church’s close relationship with President-elect Vladimir Putin.
The incident, and the arrest of three band members who face up to seven years in jail for their performance, has ignited a debate about the Church’s role in politics and left Kirill open to criticism from inside and outside the Church.
“We are under attack by persecutors,” said the Patriarch, his bass voice booming out through speakers from an outdoor stage where he stood under the cathedral’s steep white walls and golden domes, flanked by red- and gold-robed priests.
“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.”
Kirill depicts Christ the Saviour as a symbol of the resurgence of the Orthodox Church since the end of atheist Soviet rule in 1991. It was rebuilt in the 1990s after being razed in the Soviet era and converted into a swimming pool.
But Kirill, who has steered the Church towards a more active role in politics, has faced criticism over his overt support for Putin, a former KGB spy whose 12-year rule has been described by the patriarch as a “miracle of God”.
The Orthodox Church has described Pussy Riot’s protest as the first in a series of anti-clerical acts of vandalism.
“This series of acts of vandalism … it’s because the Church now backs the state very strongly and this wave is mostly against the current authorities,” said Anastasia Pavlukhova, 20, a theology student, who made the 1,350 km (840 mile) journey to the event from the southern city of Pyatigorsk by bus with her parish.
“I don’t think it is right for the Church to meddle in state affairs … but there are better ways to protest,” she said.