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Row over feminists’ escapade in Orthodox cathedral grows

March 27, 2012, 13:50 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The row over the recent outrageous escapade by feminists from the Pussy Riot punk group, who staged a mock prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in central Moscow a month ago, keeps growing every single day. The public, including the Orthodox Christians, is split – some have been calling for clemency and warning against handling the hooligans too harshly. The others – and they are in the majority – want the culprits to be strongly punished. The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill has for the first time offered his comment in public in a firm statement saying that the calls for finding excuses for the “blasphemy” were impermissible. It is noteworthy that half of Russians would like to see the young women brought to justice.

However, there are many of those who, while being critical of Pussy Riot for what they did, believe that the reaction of the Church and the law enforcement is not adequate to the wrongdoing.

On February 21, the feminist punk group Pussy Riot staged a mock prayer on the ambo of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior “Our Lady, Make Putin Leave for Good!” Five young women sneaked onto the ambo in front of the altar, put on colored masks and started imitating praying parishioners. Also, they sang a song that many believers interpreted as blasphemy.

A criminal case over an act of hooliganism was opened. Three members of the group, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Santsevich, were detained. All three were arrested before April 24. Two have little children. The investigators charged them with hooliganism, an offence for which they may get a prison term of up to seven years.

Patriarch Kirill last Saturday for the first time offered his opinion of the incident in public. He said the young women had defiled a wholly shrine and he dismissed attempts to find excuses for the blasphemy as impermissible. “The devil has ridiculed all of us,” Patriarch Kirill said in his message. He condemned those who “are finding excuses for the blasphemy and trying to present this as some sort of a funny joke.”

The representatives of other religions, too, believe that the ‘punk prayer’ was an act of defilement of a wholly shrine. The Inter-Religious Council of Russia, uniting the spiritual leaders and representatives of the four traditional religions (Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) issued a statement to declare that Pussy Riot had committed a crime with the aim to split society and incite discord.

A Pussy Riot member nicknamed Blondie told a television channel that their protest was against the Patriarch’s intervention in the country’s political affairs.

During the election campaign Patriarch Kirill demonstrated his support for presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. At Putin’s meeting with religious leaders they said that they saw him as “the unifier of the nation.” Patriarch Kirill was one of the first to have congratulated Putin upon his election victory.

Blondie said that the Patriarch should not make any political statements. “We just wished to show that this is a faked and hypocritical cathedral,” she said about the gist of the escapade.

The Pussy Riot scandal triggered a wave of discussion by Internet bloggers, including those representing the Orthodox public. Last weekend parishioners at some of Moscow’s churches were invited to put their signatures to a message with a call for strong punishment for the hooligans. The parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church are split. Some want the women to be brought to justice, while others warn that the letter would merely increase negative attitudes to the Orthodox Church in society. They warned the message looked like the “collective letters by the working people” critical of dissenters in the Soviet era.

Russian human rights activists have come out with a statement saying that this is Russia’s first case of an arrest for blasphemy. Before, all such incidents ended with fines. “The last barrier in the way of Russia’s conversion into a clerical state, in which disagreement with church policies is equal to a criminal offense, has been broken,” the statement runs. Human rights activists point out that they see the arrested as prisoners of conscience and called on international human rights organizations to recognize this status, too.

However, as a Levada center poll has shown, 46% of Russian citizens believe a seven-year prison term would be a punishment proportionate to the abuse. And only 35% said such a sentence for Pussy Riot members would be excessive.

“The Pussy Riot affair has become a subject matter of emotional debate, and even the discussion of election rigging cases has been pushed into the background,” the first deputy president of the Center of Political Technologies, Alexei Makarkin writes in the Live Journal. “The harsh attitude of the church has aroused doubts even among the believers. The liberal and moderately conservative part of the flock and clerics see no reason for sending to jail three young women who have not killed or robbed anyone. It would be enough to talk to them to put their minds on the right track and to let go in peace.”

The harsh position of the Church and its alliance with the authorities in their opinion is a dead end.

“If the young women get a real prison term, they will be turned into prisoners of conscience,” says historian and journalist, Public Chamber member Nikolai Svanidze. Interviewed on the Ekho Moskvy radio station, he recalled that even in the Russian Empire, where anti-church crimes were automatically interpreted as crimes against the state the criminal punishment for “outrage inside a church” was no greater than five months in jail.

“The bonds between the Russian Orthodox Church and the secular state have produced a situation in which the Church has felt a sort of political strength that it did not feel before,” he believes. “The very harsh attitude does nothing bolster the Church’s authority,” says Svanidze. “The public mind associates the Church with kindness and clemency, and not with cruelty.”

MOSCOW, March 27