MOSCOW – An opposition activist was detained and beaten Sunday after he tried to enter Moscow's landmark Christ the Savior Cathedral to pray to deliver Russia from Vladimir Putin.
Several riot police officers forced Roman Dobrokhotov into a police car just meters (feet) from Russia's largest church, widely seen as a symbol of resurgent Orthodox Christianity after seven decades of atheist Communist rule. Dobrokhotov, who leads a small anti-Kremlin youth movement, heckled President Dmitry Medvedev during his speech in the Kremlin in 2008.
Another activist, Mariya Baronova, of the Resistance anti-Kremlin group, entered the cathedral, but was cornered by a group of Orthodox priests and men who tried to escort her out.
A dozen activists from the militant Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers group lined up in front of the cathedral, shouting obscenities at Dobrokhotov and Baronova. The group is known for dispersing gay rallies, and for protesting against pop star Madonna's shows in Russia and burning Harry Potter books.
Hours later, when Dobrokhotov was leaving a police station where he was held, seven men assaulted him, damaging his ear, he said.
"They looked like soccer fans," he told The Associated Press, referring to burly and aggressive young men who are often involved in street fights and violence after soccer matches across Russia. "Luckily, police interrupted them and detained one of them."
Opposition leaders have long claimed that pro-Kremlin youth movements hire soccer fans to disperse anti-Kremlin rallies and beat up government critics.
The anti-Putin prayer followed a February prank by a feminist punk rock band.
Three members of the Pussy Riot band face up to seven years in jail for their February anti-Putin prayer at the cathedral. Their treatment provoked a public outcry and contributed to growing criticism of the church, a powerful institution with close ties to the Kremlin.
Russian Patriarch Kirill has described the punk performance as blasphemous, and part of a broader attack on the church. The patriarch has joined the Kremlin in portraying the recent wave of protests against Putin as a threat to Russian statehood.
Opposition protests drew tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow in the months head of the March presidential election that gave Putin, currently serving as prime minister, a third presidential term. Putin's inauguration is set for May 7.