Russian Religious Leader Calls for 'Morality' Council to Regulate Mass Media

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church on Monday called for tighter controls over the content of TV and radio broadcasts, saying they were promoting "vicious behavior."

The comments by Patriarch Alexy II, made at a Kremlin meeting with President Vladimir Putin, come as concerns increase over the growing influence of the church on government policy.

Russia needs to establish of a public council to oversee the "morality" of the mass media, Alexy II said.

"Many television and radio programs shows the permissibility of vicious behavior and it makes one contemplate the moral criteria of what mass media are allowed to do," he said.

"Our society needs a public council that will assume appropriate regulating functions," he said.

He spoke after a ceremony in which a government museum turned over to church officials a piece of cloth that the Orthodox faithful believe was part of a robe worn by Jesus Christ.

Some analysts say the meeting between Putin and patriarch was part of the continuing effort by the Kremlin to encourage religious Russians to vote in the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections.

The dominant political party in the lower house, the Kremlin-backed United Russia, is expected to win a commanding victory in the vote. Putin, who has pledged to step down as president next spring, is heading the party's ticket, and some have speculated that the Kremlin is angling for a way to keep him on for a third term, or in some other leading political position.

"This is yet another action of the Kremlin to gain support from the church," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst believed to have close ties to Kremlin insiders. "Possibly, the Kremlin will engage the church hierarchy to participate in the 'For Putin' movement."

"For Putin" is a political movement that has sprung up to urge him to remain as a major political leader.

Father Vladimir Vigilyansky, a church spokesman, denied that Monday's ceremony had political overtones.

The church does not support particular candidates, Vigilyansky said, but individual priests are free to advocate for politicians they like.

"This event has nothing to do with politics," he said.

Government and religion are officially separate under Russia's post-Soviet constitution, but some Russians without religious beliefs have complained that Orthodox doctrine is as pervasive today as atheism was during Soviet times.

Putin, perhaps conscious of criticism that the Kremlin is too close to the Orthodox hierarchy, noted that the government respects the role of "all traditional religions and other faiths" in Russia's public life. But he also raised the issue of the parliamentary vote.

"The stability of the country directly depends on the upcoming election," Putin told the patriarch and dozens of prelates who attended the ceremony.

The Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a revival since the Soviet collapse in 1991 and now claims about two-thirds of the country's 143 million people as its followers.

The piece of Christ's robe was acquired by Russian czars in the 17th century. The purple swath is set in a silver frame with diamonds and figures of saints. It has been kept at various government museums after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.