(Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) kisses Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill during an Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow April 23, 2011. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church has called the 12 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule a “miracle of God” and criticised his opponents, at a gathering where religious leaders heaped praise on the prime minister. Putin wants support from spiritual figures for his campaign to win his third term in the Kremlin in a March 4 election. He is facing a growing protest movement and needs to consolidate his core support to avoid a runoff.

Putin has built his campaign on a contrast with the turbulent 1990s, when millions were thrown into poverty after the collapse of the Soviet Union while ethnic conflicts such as the war in Chechnya threatened to tear Russia apart.

Patriarch Kirill, a bearded cleric seen as a modernising figure in the Russian church, the largest in Orthodox Christianity, compared the period preceding Putin’s ascent to power to the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

“What were the 2000s then? Through a miracle of God, with the active participation of the country’s leadership, we managed to exit this horrible, systemic crisis,” Kirill told a meeting on Wednesday at the ancient St. Daniel’s monastery.