MOSCOW -- Can atheism now get you jail time in Russia?
Russia's laws suggest it cannot, but after a blogger was convicted for playing Pokemon Go in a cathedral last week, that was the question put to Russian President Vladimir Putin on air by one of the country's most famous journalists.
On state TV's First Channel, the country's most watched station, veteran journalist Vladimir Pozner, 83, on May 15 criticized the law on "insulting religious feelings" that saw Ruslan Sokolovsky handed a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence.
Pozner read from the May 11 verdict against Sokolovsky, which found he had insulted religious feelings by "denying the existence of God, denying the existence of the founders of Christianity and of Islam, Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammed."
Pozner questioned whether the sentence could really be cast as a "soft" or "lenient," as it was described by one cleric. He also suggested to viewers that he himself could soon land in jail.
"As it is known, I am an atheist. I stridently believe there is no God. It's not that I run around shouting, 'There isn't, there isn't' from morning to evening, but I do not hide my convictions. I would like to get an exhaustive clarification," he said. "By propagating this view, am I violating the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation?"
"Perhaps [Russian Orthodox Church head] Patriarch Kirill would say whether I am insulting his religious feelings by affirming there is no God. Perhaps the chairman of the Constitutional Court could tell me if I have the right to think what I think and say what I say. Perhaps, the head of state [Putin] could clarify: Does court await me, will [I be given] a 'soft' sentence?"
'Pussy Riot Law'
Speaking to TASS news agency, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov on May 16 declined to comment on Pozner's question, which he called "rhetorical" and outside the purview of the Kremlin administration.
Vakhtang Kipshidze, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile sought to assure Pozner in comments to Interfax, saying the church had "always conducted open and mutually respectful discussion with atheists."
"It seems to me that the appearance of this question is linked to the lying portrayal of the sentence against Sokolovsky that was created by certain Russian media," he said.
Kipshidze said "it is completely groundless to consider the sentence against Sokolovsky to be persecution for atheist convictions."
Sokolovsky was arrested after posting a profanity-laced video on YouTube of himself playing Pokemon Go in a church despite official warnings not to play the game at religious sites. He also mocked organized religion on his channel.
The verdict against Sokolovsky was condemned by rights groups such as Amnesty International and seen as symptomatic of the rising influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and a shrinking space for religious freedom.
Sokolovsky was convicted in part under 2013 legislation that criminalizes public activities undertaken with the aim of insulting religious feelings and introduces punishments of up to three years.
The law became known as the "blasphemy law" and was passed a year after three women from the Pussy Riot punk group were arrested for shooting a scene from a music video attacking alleged ties between the church and the Kremlin at the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral.
Pozner criticized the jailing of the Pussy Riot activists, and in 2013 spoke out about the law on "insulting religious feelings," noting its loose wording and vulnerability to abuse.
Nonetheless, Pozner's frank comments on state television suggest dismay at the symbiosis between church and state in a country where 30 years ago atheism was state doctrine.
Russian TV remains the most important source of news for the overwhelming majority of Russians, despite the rise of the Internet, and television output is tightly controlled by the Kremlin.
The television station 2X2 canceled a recent episode of popular cartoon The Simpsons because it satirized the Sokolovsky saga with a scene involving Homer Simpson playing a game called "Peekimon Get" in a church.