By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church on Friday rejected criticism of his increasingly strong relationship with President Vladimir Putin, saying that close ties between the church and state were good for society.
Opposition groups, and some Russian Orthodox believers, have voiced concern about the Church's closeness to the state in a debate fuelled by the two-year jail terms given last month to three members of the Pussy Riot punk band who protested in a Moscow cathedral.
Patriarch Kirill, who has called Putin's long rule a "miracle of God", did not name the president or Pussy Riot in a speech to students, but he underlined the importance of cooperation between the church and state and criticized calls for a totally secular state.
"The institution of power appeared in the world, in a society prone to sin, to safeguard this society so that people could live together," the Patriarch said in a speech at Moscow State University.
"So, clear and very definite support by the Orthodox Church for the institution of state authorities does not amount to an assessment of this or that politician or state figure by every representative of the church," he said. "But it is indispensable to understand that safeguarding the institution of power is a guarantee of a flourishing society."
Putin, a former KGB leader, has increasingly promoted Orthodox Christianity during his 12-year rule, while also making clear that there is a place for many religions in Russia.
However, Pussy Riot reignited the debate about the church's role in the mainly Orthodox country when they burst into a Moscow cathedral in February to give a profanity-laced rendition of song criticizing Putin's ties with the Church.
Kirill, who backed Putin in this year's presidential election, has said that the Russian Orthodox Church is under attack from enemies who want to mock and destroy it.
The July killing of a Muslim leader and wounding of another in Tatarstan, in Russia's heartland, also raised fears in the Kremlin that an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus may be spilling over to other Russian regions.
The attacks prompted calls for unity by Putin, who said he would not let religious or ethnic extremism to tear Russia apart.
The lower chamber of Russia's parliament, the State Duma, is now working on changes to the criminal code that would introduce jail sentences of up to three years for anyone guilty of offending religious feelings.
Critics say that this would blur the line between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church, and that the new law could be used to stifle Putin's critics.
The parliament, which is dominated by Putin's United Russia party, has already passed measures that the opposition considers repressive, such as increasing fines for protesters who step out of line and toughening the punishment for defamation.
About 70 percent of Russian citizens describe themselves as Russian Orthodox Christians, but far fewer attend church regularly. All major faiths, however, have enjoyed revivals since the collapse of the communist Soviet Union in 1991.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and David Goodman)