(Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill visit the restored rooms of Svyato-Danilov Monastery, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox church, in Moscow February 1, 2012. REUTERS/Yana Lapikova/RIA Novosti)

At the peak of street protests against Vladimir Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church pitched itself as a potential moderator. Three months later, its shift towards the president-elect has become so clear – and so divisive – that it has issued an unusually tough statement saying it is under threat from anti-Russian forces for backing him.

Its decision to stand firmly behind Putin before he starts a six-year presidential term is a gamble which some experts say could yet backfire and undermine its authority in a society that has been polarised by the protests which began over alleged fraud in a December parliamentary election.

Criticism that Russia’s longest-surviving institution is working hand-in-hand with the Kremlin to suppress dissent and lend legitimacy to Putin’s dominance has been further fuelled by Church hardliners’ uncompromising stance.

“When the Church stands on the side of one political force against another political force without the universal support of society, this is a reason for serious censure,” Andrei Zubov, a historian who has studied Russian church-state relations, said.