Tens of thousands pray for Russia's church

Tens of thousands prayed outside Moscow's main cathedral on Sunday to show their support for the Russian Orthodox Church in a controversy over a punk rock protest that has added to the political tensions in Russia.

Christ the Savior Cathedral was the scene of a brief surprise performance in February by a female punk rock group protesting Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency. Three members of the band Pussy Riot remain in police custody and face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism.

Their treatment has provoked a public outcry and contributed to growing criticism of the church, a powerful institution with close ties to the Kremlin.

Patriarch Kirill has described the punk performance as blasphemous and part of a broader attack on the church, which is considered by many Russians as essential to their national identity and an intrinsic part of a powerful state.

Kirill had called on believers to attend Sunday's service to pray "for our faith, our church, our sacred objects and our fatherland."

The church maintains that desecration of icons and other acts of vandalism have become more frequent since the punk protest. As the patriarch led a procession around the cathedral, priests carried a crucifix and an icon that had been damaged in attacks elsewhere in Russia this spring.

The priests also carried an icon that had been riddled with bullet holes in the 1920s, when atheist Communists began destroying churches around the country after taking power in 1917.

Speaking to the crowds from a stage outside the cathedral, Kirill said the church once again has come under attack from "enemy forces."

While the attacks cannot be compared to those of the past, he said, they are "more dangerous because blasphemy, sacrilege and desecration of holy things is being seen as a legal demonstration of human freedom."

The patriarch has joined the Kremlin in portraying the recent wave of protests against Putin as a threat to Russian statehood.

The 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.

Supporters of the church have even adopted some of the opposition's tactics.

Late Saturday, for instance, hundreds of cars flying red balloons circled central Moscow on a broad road called the Garden Ring. The rally was joined by bikers from the Night Wolves motorcycle club, who have welcomed Putin on some of their rides in recent years.

In opposition rallies along the Garden Ring, cars have sported the white balloons and ribbons that have become the symbols of the protest movement.

The opposition has taken up the cause of the three jailed punk rockers, who have been ordered held until June 24 while police investigate. The church has shown no sympathy for the women, saying they deserve to be punished for their "blasphemous" performance.

Wearing brightly colored homemade ski masks and miniskirts, the women had rushed into the cathedral on Feb. 21 and shouted out "Mother Mary, drive Putin away."