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Orthodox Believers Stand Up For Jailed Anti-Putin Punk Rockers


Sympathizers rallied in support of Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova outside a Moscow police station on March 8.
Sympathizers rallied in support of Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova outside a Moscow police station on March 8.
Public outrage is mounting over the jailing of two Russian women accused of staging an illegal anti-Kremlin performance in Moscow's largest church.

Investigators claim the pair belong to the all-girl dissident punk group Pussy Riot that broke into Christ the Savior Cathedral last month and performed a caustic "punk prayer" from the altar.

The young women, who have been on hunger strike since their March 3 arrest, face up to seven years behind bars if convicted on a hooliganism charge that includes motives of religious hatred.

Sympathizers rallied on March 8 outside police headquarters in Moscow to demand their release.

"I think it was wrong to place Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina in pretrial detention for their performance. Both have small children," said Olga, a 19-year Moscow student who attended the Moscow rally. "That's why I came today."

A Moscow court this week ordered the women's detention until April 24. News of their plight has spread beyond Russia's borders; similar pickets were planned today in Paris, Berlin, and Prague.

Facebook accounts and an e-mail address have also been established to drum up support for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina.

Gone Too Far This Time?

This is not Pussy Riot's first guerrilla concert. The group has performed a number of dissident songs in public places, including one on Red Square called "Putin Pissed Himself."

The band members, who wear brightly colored dresses and conceal their faces behind ski masks, denounce Russia's authoritarianism and lack of reform.

But many Russians say Pussy Riot has simply gone too far. Footage of the gig at Christ the Savior is making the rounds on the Internet and has sparked a heated debate.

Many believers found the song, which criticizes the Russian Orthodox Church's close ties to the Kremlin and calls on the Virgin Mary to "drive out" Putin, deeply offensive.

"Girls, get prepared for trial, you'll receive your fee in prison," writes one LiveJournal user.

"Burn them at the stake!" writes another.

Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin has hailed the arrest of the activists and, while saying they did not deserve prison, called for a severe punishment.

Putin himself, fresh from his March 4 presidential victory, has personally apologized to Orthodox followers on behalf of Pussy Riot and voiced hope that such incidents would not happen again.

Embarrassed By Church Reaction

Not all Orthodox, however, back the legal assault against Pussy Riot.

Many say they are embarrassed by their church's reaction so far and thousands have signed an open letter calling on Patriarch Kirill, who has yet to react publicly on the matter, to intercede in their favor.

"Most of us believe such behavior in a church is unacceptable," says the letter. "But we consider that the reaction to this incident -- the prosecution, the detention, and the harsh comments by members of the Orthodox Church toward participants of the 'punk prayer' -- has been even more unacceptable."

Members of Pussy Riot perform on Red Square in Moscow on January 20.
Members of Pussy Riot perform on Red Square in Moscow on January 20.
The letter's author, Orthodox Church member Lydia Moniava, says more than 5,000 people have already signed the petition since it went online March 6.

"Many Russian Orthodox Church followers posted absolutely horrible, hateful comments on the Internet and hounded these poor women," she told RFE/RL. "And all this was done in the name of the Orthodox Church. This really upset and distressed me because persecuting others on the grounds that your own feelings were insulted is totally un-Christian. I felt there had to be a civil response from people who had a different opinion."

Moniava said the Orthodox Church should have responded to Pussy Riot's accusations in the form of an open debate instead of "tightening the screw" on detractors.

Another group of sympathizers plans to hold a Mass at Christ the Savior Cathedral on March 9 in support of the jailed activists.

Pussy Riot, whose members include self-professed Orthodox believers, praised such initiatives and vowed to continue to protest.

A band member who identified herself as Serafima told RFE/RL that the jailing of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina has only galvanized their anger at the ruling elite.

"People, believers, are kinder than our patriarch and Putin," she said. "We had not expected authorities to react so harshly; obviously our performances have frightened them. Of course, we are very angry that two women were arrested, but we will not give up. We are not scared."

RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth contributed to this report from Moscow