Prague, 17 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian Constitution states that Russia is a secular country, with no state-sponsored religion. But many observers point to the increasingly prominent role played by the Russian Orthodox Church in public life as evidence that some would like to see this changed.
Now, a trial in Moscow is focusing the spotlight on the issue of religious freedom, Russian ethnicity, and the role of the state. The case pits the prosecutor's office against three human rights activists charged with inciting religious and ethnic hatred for organizing a modern-art exhibition entitled "Caution, Religion."
The exhibition, hosted by the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Social Center, featured 42 artworks by 42 artists -- some of them controversial but all intended to provoke discussion about the role of religion in modern society, according to the curators. One work featured Jesus's face drawn on a Coca-Cola logo next to the words "This is My Blood."
Just four days after the exhibition opened last year, six vandals destroyed several of the pieces, smearing on the museum's walls graffiti that accused Sakharov museum workers of being "Orthodox haters." The museum sued the men but lost the case.
"The trial reflects the legal right of the state to conduct its religious policy and it may well serve as a lesson to those people who are fostering tensions in the religious affairs of our country."
Now, prosecutors have turned the tables by charging Sakharov center Director Yurii Samodurov, exhibition organizer Lyudmila Vasilovskaya and artist Anna Mikhalchuk Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. The article punishes actions that "incite ethnic, racial or religious hatred."
The prosecutor, speaking at the trial opening yesterday, said the exhibition had "insulted and humiliated the national dignity of a great number of believers." The three could face five years' imprisonment if found guilty.
Democracy groups have expressed outrage at the trial, as have members of the Sakharov center. They wrote an open letter posted on the Internet that recalls the center's advocacy work for human rights, including in cases involving issues of religious freedom.
Center director Samodurov told the court yesterday that the exhibition's message had been twisted and misunderstood by its detractors.
"'Caution, Religion' -- the name of the exhibition -- has two meanings. It is a call for people to take care of religion, to respect it and respect believers and also a warning sign when we are dealing with religious fundamentalism, whether it be Islamic fundamentalism or Orthodox fundamentalism," Samodurov said. "None of the materials presented contained any other message, so I do not understand why we are accused of the motives mentioned by the prosecutor."
Others, such as activist Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights group, say the trial has only served to confirm the exhibition's warning about the dangers of fundamentalism and politicizing religion. He noted that the prosecutor's office brought the charges against the Sakharov center staffers after receiving thousands of petitions collected by ultraconservative members of the Orthodox Church. Their aim, he said, is to turn Russia into an explicitly Orthodox country -- something that expressly contradicts the constitution. That the state is helping them further this ideology is something he finds deeply disturbing.
"This would be laughable if it weren't so sad," Ponomarev said. "Radical elements in the church want our state to become Orthodox, even though our constitution forbids this."
Russia is certainly not the only country where art has clashed with politics and those who claim to be the guardians of public morality. Nearly a century ago, pioneering French painter George Braque said that "the function of art is to disturb." More recently, the artist Andres Serrano attracted huge controversy in the United States and Australia with his photograph of a crucifix, immersed in a jar of urine, which he called "Piss Christ."
Ultimately, the scandal only served to make Serrano more well-known and although some of his exhibitions were closed prematurely, he never faced the prospect of a trial.
Defense lawyer Yurii Shmidt said he hopes the judge in the Moscow case will be guided by the Russian Constitution and uphold the freedom of expression it guarantees, as well as the secular nature of the Russian state. He cautioned against linking Orthodoxy with Russian ethnicity, as the prosecution has done in the charges it has brought.
"This case concerns fundamental human rights and I have no doubt that it will turn into a huge mark of shame for Russia if a guilty verdict is delivered," Shmidt said.
That is not the view of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy. For their reaction, RFE/RL spoke to Father Mikhail Dudko, of the church's Department for External Relations. Dudko emphasized that the church is not the one responsible for the suit and he rejected accusations by those who see the trial as an attempt by the Orthodox clergy to score political points.
"The trial of the museum workers has not come at our initiative," Dudko said. "It is the initiative of the prosecutor's office and this cannot be interpreted as a trial of the church versus the Sakharov museum. It is a trial of the state versus the Sakharov museum."
Nevertheless, Dudko made no secret of the fact that the church hierarchy does not object to the trial, having been deeply offended by the exhibition. A guilty verdict, he implied, might not be a bad thing.
"Of course, [the exhibition] offended us and it offended us deeply. Of course, we believe that something similar must not occur again. But I repeat that a state that tries to promote harmony in religious affairs, that tries to ensure that all citizens -- regardless of faith -- feel comfortable, must of course take steps to ensure this happens, Dudko said. "In our view, the trial reflects the legal right of the state to conduct its religious policy and it may well serve as a lesson to those people who are fostering tensions in the religious affairs of our country."
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)