By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Furniture firm IKEA has removed a photograph from its Russian website of people in colorful ski masks like those worn by punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members were jailed after staging a protest against Vladimir Putin in a church.
The picture, which showed four people in the masks sitting on IKEA furniture, had been posted on a section of the site which displays photographs of customers posing at stores.
A notice on the website confirmed the image had been removed and said: "IKEA is a commercial organization that conducts its activity outside of politics and religion."
"We cannot allow our advertising project to be used as a platform for campaigning of any kind," it added.
Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after belting out a song criticizing Putin, then prime minister and now president, in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February. They were handed two-year jail terms.
The brightly colored balaclava masks they wore during the protest have become the band's trademark. A large opposition protest in Moscow last weekend featured big balloons with the mask design and the words "Free Pussy Riot".
The Russian Orthodox Church head has called the cathedral protest part of a campaign aimed at curbing the resurgence of Russia's main faith. Foreign governments, rights groups and musicians have criticized the women's sentences as excessive.
Russia has dismissed the criticism from abroad, which the Foreign Ministry said pointed to a "clash of civilizations". Putin has said the state is obliged to protect the feelings of the faithful.
The photograph, which appeared to have been submitted by a person with the last name Starovoitova in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, had appeared on a competition section of the IKEA site where visitors were invited to vote for their favorite shot.
The picture had received 1,431 votes before it was taken down - more than any other posted in the same week.
A representative of IKEA in Russia confirmed on Sunday the notice had replaced a photograph of people wearing ski masks and declined to comment further immediately, asking for a written request which would be answered on Monday.
IKEA has invested about 2.5 billion euros ($3.25 billion) in Russia since 2000, building stores that anchor malls on the outskirts of big cities. When it posted record profits for the fiscal 2010/11 year in December, the company said some of its biggest sales gains were in Russia.
In 2009 IKEA had threatened to halt further expansion in the country, citing corruption and red tape, but last November it said it was looking to at least double its three-store footprint in Moscow and refurbish its 14 MEGA malls.
A Moscow court is to begin hearing an appeal against the convictions and sentences in the Pussy Riot trial on October 1.
($1 = 0.7699 euros)
(Editing by Pravin Char)