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Pussy Riot trial tests Russia's Orthodox Church

First prison, then compassion seems to be the Russian Orthodox Church's stance on Pussy Riot. But observers say that this might lead to many Russians turning their back on the church.

Russian Patriarch Kyrill presented his latest book in March in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. One of the key issues he focused on was the virtue of compassion. It's compassion for the members of punk band Pussy Riot that Russian human rights activists, artists, writers, musicians as well as Western celebrities like Sting, Madonna or Germany's Nina Hagen are now calling for.

Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina (Source: Misha Japaridze/AP/dapd)

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina face prison time

The verdict for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich is expected to be announced Friday (17.08.2012). The prosecution accuses the three women, who have been held in custody for half a year, of hooliganism and incitement of religious hatred.

In February, the band had staged a "protest prayer" in Moscow's biggest church, the Cathedral of Christ the Savoir, just days ahead of the presidential elections that swept Vladimir Putin back into the president's office.

An Internet video shows a group of women in short dresses and wearing colorful balaclavas, dancing in front of the altar and shaking their fists. The video is accompanied by a punk prayer, a song calling on the Virgin Mary to chase Putin away.

Waning public support for harsh sentence

Patriarch of Moscow, Kyrill (Source: dpa/Sergey Pyatakov)

Patriarch Kyrill described the performance as "blasphemy"

The accused have described their performance as a political act. Ahead of the presidential poll, the Russian Orthodox Church had called upon people to vote for Putin. That's why, Pussy Riot members said, they wanted to protest against the close connection between the church and the Kremlin.

Over the course of the trial, a dwindling number of Russians expressed support for a harsh sentence for the three young women. Opinion polls in April had suggested that some 47 percent of the population were in support of a tough verdict, in June that number fell to 33 percent.

Many of the Orthodox believers, however, have insisted on a severe sentence, Natalia Sorkaja, from the pollsters Lewada which conducted the study, told DW. She said most Russians were well informed about the Pussy Riot trial and that the media was covering the case extensively.

Church demands punishment

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. (Source: dpa/Andreas Lander)

Pussy Riot staged their political protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Since the trial began, Russia's Orthodox Church has been calling for a severe sentence. It does not seem prepared to easily forgive the three young women. Kyrill spoke of "blasphemy" and "satanic mockery."

"I know how much the soul of our people has been hurt," he said, adding that it was not a case the church could just brush over.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, in charge of matters of the relation between church and people at the Moscow patriarchy, agreed with Kyrill. He recently said it was only after the verdict had been pronounced, that one could consider compassion.

More to turn away from the church?

"The church wants to see a harsh punishment for Pussy Riot because they believe it will be a warning for other young people who want to protest against the church with similar political actions," Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russia specialist at Bremen University, told DW. But he said he still is surprised by the strict position taken up by religious leaders.

"In the past, the church tried find a balance between the interests of the different groups in society. It tried to not get into an argument with the intelligentsia and the Moscow or Saint Petersburg middle class. But now it seems, the church is breaking those ties," he said, adding that as a result even more of the young urban class will turn away from the church.

"With this stance, the church will make even more people of those who reflect critically, turn away from it," Natalia Sorkaja agreed. She said she believes about 5 percent to 7 percent of Orthodox believers could turn their back on the church because they feel more connected to liberal and democratic values.

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