Tens of thousands of Christians gathered outside Russia's main cathedral as part of what religious leaders called a day of prayer "in defense" of the Orthodox Christian faith. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, led morning prayers at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral before launching a procession of supporters carrying icons and other property religious authorities say have been "defiled" by an alleged wave of attacks against the Church, including a so-called 'punk prayer' led by members of 'Pussy Riot', a girl band that gave a raucous performance in the cathedral in February.
In early March, a man broke into a church in Veliky Ustyug, some 500 miles northeast of Moscow, and hacked more than 30 holy icons into pieces with an axe. Two weeks later, another church was vandalized in the southern Russian town of Nevinnomyssk. There an assailant smashed icons, battered the priest, and ended his rampage by planting a hunting knife into a cross on the altar. The Russian Orthodox Church says these incidents are the latest in a string of attacks against the church, which clerics claim is under assault from unspecified "enemies of the faith."
Patriarch Kiril warned that the country was facing a "fateful moment" in history as women in colorful kerchiefs wiped away tears under the azure spring sky. He denounced Pussy Riot's actions as "blasphemy" and "a mockery" while voicing frustration that some were treating the incident as the "legal expression of human freedom".
"We come here to pray for our Fatherland, for our people and for our youth - for God to keep it from the Devil's temptations," the patriarch said with emotion. "We are not threatening anyone and we are not demonstrating our force," adding "But no one can stop us in this fateful moment in history - and today we are experiencing just such a moment - from gathering for prayer."
Similar events were held at Orthodox churches throughout the country. In Moscow, some defenders of the church began gathering as early as April 21, including members of the "Night Wolves" motorcycle club. Aleksandr Zaldostanov, one of the leaders of the bikers, said the group wanted to show its support for the pro-Orthodox initiative, which coincides with the start of motorcycle season. "We wanted to, at the same time [as the opening of the motorcycle season] support the Russian Orthodox Church, to show our solidarity, and to stress that we are with them and not with those crazy [anti-church] people -- that we are with our country and with our faith," Zaldostanov said.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, on April 21 stood surrounded by bikers as well as more traditional members of the church and said the event aims to bring all Orthodox faithful together at a special time of year for the church. "We came here to express our support for the church, and to speak about our faithfulness to the Christian spirit, faithfulness to God's truth, and in these Easter days it's very important to feel that we, as Orthodox Christians, are together," Chaplin said.
Moscow authorities had thousands of police to maintain order at the site, where Pussy Riot supporters are expected to stage a separate demonstration. Two members of Pussy Riot remain in prison and are awaiting trial. Patriarch Kiril was apparently unmoved by pleas for clemency, even though two of the young women have infant children. They may face seven years in prison should they be convicted of the various charges they are facing. A video of their performance at the Moscow cathedral in February has garnered more than a million hits on Youtube. A group of Pussy Riot supporters were arrested outside of a Moscow police station on April 19.
According to VOA News, public outrage is mounting over the jailing of the pair who investigators claim performed a raucous 'punk prayer' in front of the iconostasis, behind which is the altar at the cathedral. The young women have been on hunger strike since their March 3 arrest. Sympathizers rallied on March 8 outside police headquarters in Moscow to demand their release. A Moscow court ordered the women's detention until April 24. News of their plight has spread beyond Russia's borders, and similar pickets were planned for Paris, Berlin, and Prague.
The members of Pussy Riot wear brightly colored dresses and conceal their faces behind ski masks during their performances, and denounce Russia's authoritarianism and lack of reform. The song that they sang at the cathedral, which criticizes the Russian Orthodox Church's close ties to the Kremlin and calls on the Virgin Mary to "drive out" Putin, was seen as deeply offensive by many believers.
However, not all Orthodox back the the government and church hierarchy in the controversy over Pussy Riot. Many say they are embarrassed by their church's reaction so far and thousands have signed an open letter calling on Patriarch Kirill, who has yet to react publicly on the matter, to intercede in their favor. "Most of us believe such behavior in a church is unacceptable," says the letter. "But we consider that the reaction to this incident -- the prosecution, the detention, and the harsh comments by members of the Orthodox Church toward participants of the 'punk prayer' -- has been even more unacceptable."
The Pussy Riot performance came amidst a series of scandals for the Orthodox Church in recent weeks that included an embarrassing incident in which its press office admitted to doctoring a photo to erase the patriarch's $40,000 watch.