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The recent hooliganistic escapade by feminists from the punk group Pussy Riot, who staged a scandalous “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, is seen as blasphemy by most Orthodox Christians, and their arrest has triggered a storm of emotion in Russian society. The Orthodox Church demands punishment for the hooligans, although even among its clerics and laymen many would like to see their release. Society’s response is mixed. Some argue that prosecution for the scandalous performance is unfair. There have been pickets in support of the detained young women in Moscow, Prague, Berlin and Paris.
What might look like a minor incident has acquired bright political colors. While Prime Minister Vladimir Putin presented his apologies to the Church for the feminists’ escapade, a rally by the opposition demanded their release. The celebration of March 8 – International Women’s Day – which remains a major public holiday in Russia, threw the spotlight on the incident.
On February 21 the feminist group Pussy Riot sneaked onto the ambo in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to stage what they called a punk prayer “Our Lady, Make Putin Leave for Good!” The young women appeared on the ambo in front of the altar, where only clergymen are allowed, put on colored masks and mockingly impersonated praying parishioners. They also sang a song that was perceived as blasphemy by many believers. The police detained several members of the group. Two of them – Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – were arrested. A criminal case over the act of hooliganism was opened and punishment under that article may be as harsh as seven years in jail. In protest the arrested women – both having children under age – went on a hunger strike.
Putin told the media that he did not know exactly what the young women had done. “If they abused the law, I offer my apologies to the clergy and the believers,” he said.
On March 8 several public activists picketed the building of the Moscow police department.
On the same day the detainees’ lawyers tried to arrange for a prayer for their health at the very same Cathedral of Christ the Savior. However, the cathedral was closed for technical reasons.
A rally by the opposition in Moscow on March 10, too, demanded the feminists’ release.
Most hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church have taken a very stern attitude to the hooligans. On its official website the Church declared non-intervention, but at the same time expressed its attitude very unequivocally. The chief of the Moscow Patriarchate’s press-service, Vladimir Vigilyansky, said that the calls for putting a word in for the detainees in fact urged Patriarch Kirill to violate the Constitution, by which the Church is separated from the state. Also, Vigilyansky asked all Orthodox Christians “to think twice before putting signatures to any petitions.”
In the Internet there has appeared a message addressed to the Patriarch to ask for the termination of the criminal case. A woman parishioner of the Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, in Moscow’s Gazetny Pereulok street, Lidiya Moniava, published an open letter in support of Pussy Riot with an invitation to put signatures to it. The letter is to be handed over to the office of Patriarch Kirill.
The Church will not yield to pressures from those who appeal for clemency in the Pussy Riot affair, the head of the synodal department for church-society relations, Vsevolod Chaplin, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. He added that it was human to forgive one’s personal enemies, but not those who insult faith.
In the meantime, a group of believes has asked Patriarch Kirill to urge the Pussy Riot group’s members to repent. According to those who signed the letter, the act of hooliganism in the church insulted the feelings of thousands of believers, who took the case to the prosecutor’s office.
Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, a senior lecturer at the Moscow Theological Academy, has made a statement that is in dissonance with the official position of the Orthodox Churchy. He proposed a very extraordinary 'punishment' for the young women.
“If I were the church’s key keeper, I would treat them to pancakes and a cup of mead, and would invite them to come again on the Sunday of Forgiveness. And if I were the church warden, I would give them a goodbye pinch in a fatherly manner. To put their minds on the right track,” Archdeacon Kurayev writes in the Live Journal. He added that “what the young women did was an outrage, but a ‘legal’ outrage.”
“After all, it’s Shrovetide, a season of clowning, buffoonery and hoaxes,” he recalled.
For his wish to forgive the hooligans Archdeacon Kurayev got an angry message from the head of the fund Vozvrashcheniye (Return), Yuri Bondarenko. “You shall be burning together with them, Father Andrei. May you be cursed!” And Deacon Vladimir Vasilik called for stripping Kurayev of priesthood.
As Kurayev has remarked, a wave of daydreams by Orthodox bloggers has swept the Internet.
Hieromonk Vitaly (Utkin), of the Ivanovo diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, “is quoting old-time regulations about fires and executions, some advise to make the women entertain the Cathedral’s nighttime guards for a night, or to give them good caning, or real prison terms. All that is said in public, in the Internet.”
“How will the non-Church majority be looking at our compatriots and contemporaries after that?” Archdeacon Kurayev asks.
Most bloggers, including Kurayev himself, believe that the young women by no means deserve police custody during the investigation or criminal prosecution.
Opposition activist and anti-corruption campaigner in the Russian segment of the Internet, Alexei Navalny, says: “Their performance in the church was idiotic, no denying that. The two main questions now are: ‘Was the offense so dangerous to society the young ladies should be kept behind bars?’ Obviously, not. ‘Are there any circumstances that rule out the presence of the detainees in police custody?’ Obviously, yes. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has a little daughter, four years of age. And Maria Alyokhina, has a little son, age five.”
“The authorities’ actions against the members of the Pussy Riot group have surprised everybody as unreasonably tough,” says Oleg Kalinka, a blogger in St. Petersburg. “The measures are so harsh as if the arrested were at least a terrorist group, harmful to society, and keeping them in custody is a security measure essential to isolating them from society.”
The head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, has called upon the Russian Orthodox Church to temper justice with mercy.
“The Church, in contrast to the state, is expected not to punish, but to call for kindness and forgiveness,” the human rights activist said. “I do not like what they did, but punishment must be adequate.”
MOSCOW, March 11.