* Patriarch Kirill says law should not crimp freedom of
* Blasts corruption in Russian Orthodox Christmas eve
* Critics warn law may blur state, church in secular Russia
By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW, Jan 6 Patriarch Kirill, the head of the
Russian Orthodox Church and a long-standing 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 a law
introducing jail terms for offending religious feelings after a
protest against Putin's increasingly close ties with the Church
by punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow's main cathedral in February.
Two members of the band are in prison for the protest, which
Kirill has called part of a coordinated attack intended to
thwart the post-Soviet revival of Russia's dominant church.
In remarks published on the eve of Russian Orthodox
Christmas, Kirill, who has called Putin's long rule a "miracle
of God", said in an interview with Interfax news agency that
Russia needed stiffer punishments for offences against religion.
"A fine of several hundred roubles (about $10) for
blasphemous inscriptions on a church, a mosque or a synagogue
signals that society does not fully realise the importance of
protecting ... religious feelings of believers," he said.
But in his most extensive comment on the proposed law, he
said it 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."
The remarks were in line with indications that Putin, while
wanting to make clear that actions such as the Pussy Riot
protest are unacceptable, is wary of undermining the balance
between religions in the diverse country.
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.
Kirill said nothing about what punishment he favoured. As
proposed in September, the legislation called for prison terms
of up to three years for offending religious feelings and up to
five years for damaging religious sites or holy books.
Rights groups say the legislation could blur the line
between church and state in constitutionally secular Russia.
PUTIN AND PATRIARCH
Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer, has cultivated close
ties with the Russian Orthodox Church in 13 years in power and
has leaned more on it for support since starting his third term
as president in May following protests against his rule.
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. About three in four of
Russia's 143 million people call themselves Russian Orthodox,
though only a minority attend church regularly.
Many were offended by the Pussy Riot protest, and opinion
polls suggested that most Russians believed the two-year prison
sentences two of the women are serving are fair punishment.
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".
"The key thing is that resistance to blasphemy should be
appropriate and free from aggression," he said.
Kirill also offered support for Putin's battle against
graft, declared in a public address last month.
Critics of the Kremlin say corruption has flourished under
Putin, with Russia ranking 133rd out of 174 states, alongside
Honduras and Guyana, in the Corruption Perception Index compiled
by Transparency International.
Kirill himself has dismissed media reports that he has a
lavish lifestyle; the Church apologised in April for doctoring a
photograph of him to remove what bloggers said was a luxury