The head of the Russian Orthodox Church said Wednesday that although the church views homosexuality as a sin, gays should not face discrimination.
Patriarch Kirill said "those who sin" must not be punished and therefore the church opposes any discrimination. Same-sex unions, however, should not be considered equal to heterosexual marriages, he said.
"We accept all the choices a person makes _ in terms of their sexuality as well," the patriarch said in comments carried by the state RIA Novosti news agency.
Gay rights advocates argue that homosexuality is not wrong because it is an in-born orientation, but the church insists that it is a choice.
It was unclear to what extent the patriarch was easing church dogma in his carefully chosen statements, made during a meeting with visiting Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland.
Opposition to gay rights remains widespread in Russia, where homosexuality was decriminalized only in 1993.
Several high-profile Russian politicians have spoken against gay rights. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov once described gays as "sodomites" and has blamed them for spreading AIDS.
Kirill, who was elected patriarch in January, has been seen as a modernizer and a politically savvy figure, but so far he has made no major statements that would signal a shift in the church's conservative views on homosexuality and abortion.