MOSCOW – The Russian Orthodox Church on Sunday asked for clemency for three jailed members of the rock band Pussy Riot if they repent for their "punk prayer" for deliverance from President Vladimir Putin at Moscow's main cathedral, a statement that came a day before an appeal hearing and appeared to reflect a desire to put an end to the case that has caused an international outrage.
But it was unclear whether the women, who were sentenced to two years last month, would offer a penitence sought by the church and how much leniency a court may show. Putin has always been reluctant to avoid leaving an impression that he could bow to public pressure and has taken an increasingly tough line on dissent since his inauguration in May.
Monday's appeal hearing has caught their family members between hope and despair as they attempt to gauge from the words and actions of government and church officials whether the political tide will turn in their favor.
In Sunday's statement, the church reaffirmed its condemnation of the women's raucous stunt, saying such actions "can't be left unpunished." But it added that if the women show "penitence and reconsideration of their action," their words "shouldn't be left unnoticed."
Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that keeping them in prison any longer would be "unproductive" — a statement that encouraged hopes the appeals court could set them free. But skeptics said that ahead of the band members' conviction on charges of "hooliganism driven by religious hatred," Putin himself said the women should not be judged too harshly, raising similar hopes for their release that proved vain.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were arrested in March after dancing and high-kicking at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral as they pleaded with the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin, who was elected to a third presidential term two weeks later. They said during their trial in August that they were protesting the Russian Orthodox Church's support for Putin and didn't intend to offend religious believers.
Both the government and the church may have a strong interest in putting the Pussy Riot case behind them to avoid further damage at home and abroad.
The band members' imprisonment has come to symbolize intolerance of dissent in Putin's Russia and caused a strong international condemnation. Their cause has been taken up by celebrities and musicians, including Madonna and Paul McCartney, and protests have been held around the world.
Even some government loyalists criticized the harsh sentence, voicing concern about the church's interference in secular affairs and a growing repressive streak in the Kremlin's policies.
Since his inauguration in May, Putin has taken an increasingly tough stance against dissent in response to a series of massive winter protests against his 13-year rule.
Opposition activists have faced interrogations and searches, and the Kremlin-controlled parliament quickly stamped a slew of draconian bills, including the one that raised fines 150-fold for taking part in unsanctioned protests and another obliging those non-government organizations that receive foreign funds to register as "foreign agents."
In a clear nod to the Pussy Riot stunt, pro-Kremlin lawmakers last week discussed a new bill that would make "offending religious feelings" a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
Actions like these have left the friends, families, and lawyers of the Pussy Riot women pessimistic about the possibility of a successful appeal.
Violetta Volkova, one of the three lawyers for the women, said Friday after visiting a prison where they are being held that she had little hope for a fair sentence in a country where courts bow to the authorities.
"There is always at least some minimal hope for common sense and that the court will act in accordance with the law," she said. "But given the political situation in Russia, we can't depend on a legal sentence."
Stanislav Samutsevich, the father of one of the women, said he also had little hope, saying that he believed the government would use the appeals process to "in some way justify the severe sentence imposed."
Friends and family say they have tried to keep the women busy with books and letters to try to lighten their mood.
Olga Vinogradova, a children's librarian, book reviewer, and longtime friend of the convicted Maria Alekhina, sent her philosophy books to read. She said she received messages from Alekhina once or twice a week.
Like Tolokonnikova, Alekhina is the mother of a young child, a 5-year-old boy, a fact which has drawn particular sympathy from supporters of the women, who have been behind bars since their arrest in March.
"One thing that she wrote to me in a letter is that . she couldn't pay a higher price than such a long separation from her child," said Vinogradova. "For her freedom to speak her mind that is the greatest price."
Vinogradova said that in her exchanges with Alekhina her friend had expressed little hope of leaving with an effective appeal.
"She's scared about what's happening now, with the new laws," said Vinogradova, "I think she may have expected more from the protest movement."