* Patriarch Kirill makes plea to protect freedom of speech
* Blasts corruption in Orthodox Christmas Eve address
* Critics warn law may blur state, church in secular Russia
By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW, Jan 6 Patriarch Kirill, the head of
Russia's Orthodox church and a long-term ally of President
Vladimir Putin, on Sunday urged the Kremlin to be moderate in
new legislation seeking stricter punishment for religious
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party proposed the law
introducing prison terms for religious offences after a protest
against Putin's increasingly close ties with the Church by punk
band Pussy Riot in Moscow's main cathedral last year.
Two members of the band were jailed for the protest.
In remarks published on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas
holiday, Kirill, who has called Putin's long rule a "miracle of
God", said the legislation should not limit citizens' rights.
"Any regulatory acts regarding the protection of religious
symbols and the feelings of believers should be scrupulously
worked through so that they are not used for improvised
limitation of freedom of speech and creative self-expression,"
he was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
However, in his most extensive comment on the proposed law,
he also said that Russia's religious laws did need improving.
"A fine of several hundred roubles (about $10) for
blasphemous inscriptions on a church, a mosque or a synagogue
signals that the society does not fully realise the importance
of protecting ... religious feelings of believers," he said.
Putin has moved closer to the Church after his election win
in December triggered the biggest street protests since he rose
to power nearly 13 years ago, and after an anti-Pussy Riot
campaign led to a surge of religious and nationalist sentiment.
Political analysts say the Kremlin has rowed back from its
initial position on the law to take into account the ethnic and
religious balance between the Christian majority and Muslim
minority, a precondition for political stability.
Rights groups say the legislation could blur the line
between church and state in constitutionally secular Russia.
Opponents say the draft law is intended as part of broader
Kremlin moves to suppress dissent and bolster public support by
casting Putin as the protector of religious believers.
Critics have also said the definition of offending religious
feelings is so broad and vague in the draft law that it risks
being ineffective or applied selectively.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been resurgent since the
collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with about three in four of
Russia's 143 million calling themselves followers. The majority
were outraged by the Pussy Riot protest last February, although
far fewer supported the tough sentences, opinion polls showed.
Kirill, who did not mention the punk protest, which the band
said was an anti-Kremlin stunt not aimed at offending believers,
urged peaceful responses to anti-church "incidents".
"It is not the first time the Church has faced acts aimed at
desecration and sacrilege of its relics and the abuse of its
believers' feelings," he said. "The key thing is that resistance
to blasphemy should be adequate and free from aggression."
Kirill also offered support for Putin's battle against
graft, declared in a public address last month.
Kremlin critics say corruption has flourished under Putin,
with Russia ranking 133rd out of 174 states, along with Honduras
and Guayana, in the Corruption Perception Index compiled by
Kirill has been accused by critics of leading a lavish
lifestyle, which reportedly included living in a luxurious
apartment and wearing an expensive watch.