(Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill (R) leads a call to prayer in support of the Orthodox Church at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow April 22, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov )

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.