By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church led thousands of believers in a nationwide day of prayer on Sunday to defend the Church against what he says is an attack by anti-Russian forces trying to erode its authority.
Large crowds gathered at Christ the Saviour, Moscow's main cathedral, to show their solidarity with the Church after an upsurge in criticism of its close relationship with the state, and particularly with President-elect Vladimir Putin, since a women's punk rock band sang a protest song in the cathedral.
The arrest of three members of the Pussy Riot group ignited a debate about the Church's role in politics and opened Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to criticism over his lifestyle which critics say is ostentatious and unbecoming of the Church's leader.
"We are under attack by persecutors," said Patriarch Kirill, his bass voice carried via speakers from an outdoor stage where he stood flanked by red- and gold-robed priests.
"The danger is in the very fact that blasphemy, derision of the sacred is put forth as a lawful expression of human freedom which must be protected in a modern society."
Kirill depicts Christ the Saviour as a symbol of the resurgence of the Orthodox Church since the end of atheist Soviet rule in 1991. It was rebuilt in the 1990s after being razed in the Soviet era and converted into a swimming pool.
But Kirill, who has steered the Church towards a more active role in politics, has faced criticism over his overt support for Putin, a former KGB spy whose 12-year rule Kirill has described as a "miracle of God".
"This series of acts of vandalism... it's because the Church now backs the state very strongly and this wave is mostly against the current authorities," said Anastasia Pavlukhova, 20, a theology student, who made the 1,350 km (840 mile) journey to the event from the southern city of Pyatigorsk by bus with her parish.
"I don't think it is right for the Church to meddle in state affairs... but there are better ways to protest," she said.
The Orthodox Church describes Pussy Riot's protest as part of a series of anti-clerical acts of vandalism.
On March 6, a man took an axe to icons in a church northeast of Moscow in Veliky Ustyug. Two weeks later, an assailant with a hunting knife desecrated the altar and beat up a priest in a church in the southern Russian city of Nevinnomyssk.
"I came here because there is a very big threat of returning to our godless past. I can't imagine Russia not being an Orthodox country," said Olga Golubeva, a 54-year-old lawyer in a red headscarf. "When I walked up and became part of this crowd I wanted to cry. To see this is happiness."
Large white bouquets decorated the cathedral, and a choir sang on the steps outside as a sound system carried their voices to the crowd so that they could be heard above the chiming bells.
The Orthodox Church said 50,000 people attended the prayer service, but a Reuters journalist estimated attendance was much lower.
DAY OF PRAYER
Earlier this month, Church leaders called on Orthodox Christians to attend Sunday's ceremony to pray "in defense of the faith, desecrated sanctuaries, the Church and its good name".
Kirill has also been criticized over his ownership of a luxury watch, which bloggers said was air-brushed out of a photograph, and for winning thousands of dollars in compensation in a lawsuit against neighbors of a flat he owns in central Moscow. Aides have dismissed the criticism.
His call for tough punishment of the three members of Pussy Riot, who on February 21 burst into the cathedral and performed a "punk prayer" at the altar in short dresses and colored masks, has divided the Church, with some clergy and faithful urging him to show leniency.
"The Church needs this kind of demonstration to show it has more supporters than critics, but also to consolidate the clergy and parishioners," Alexei Makarkin, of the Moscow Centre for Political Technologies, said of Sunday's prayers.
"Within the Church itself, opinion has been divided over what was worse: The 'punk prayer' or the Church's reaction to it, the scandal or the demand for severe punishment of the girls."
Many people at the Moscow ceremony dismissed criticism of the institution which enjoys its highest level of public trust since the onset of chaotic capitalism in the 1990s, and complained about what they regard as a lowering of moral standards.
"My only hope today is in the Church," said Yelena Antonova, a 52-year-old librarian. "The state is not yet passing the right laws to protect society from this total absence of morality that now reigns ... I think that if the Church and state are closer, it will be healthier for society."
A court refused last week to free the three members of Pussy Riot at a hearing where supporters scuffled with police. Each faces up to seven years in jail if found guilty of "hooliganism" over their altar rendition of "Holy Mother, throw Putin out!"
Pussy Riot's action was part of a protest movement against Prime Minister Putin that has lost momentum since he won a presidential election on March 4.
(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Andrew Osborn)