* Protests and petitions around world before verdict
* Pussy Riot detainees cast as victims of oppression
* Bare-breasted stunt in Kiev, balaclavas in Bulgaria
* Madonna and McCartney among stars getting involved
By Olzhas Auyezov and Andrea Burzynski
KIEV/NEW YORK, Aug 17 (Reuters) - With public readings, petitions and practical stunts, thousands of people around the world have voiced support for members of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, on trial for staging an anti-Kremlin protest in a church.
Inside Russia, many people were offended when the three women stormed the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February wearing bright-coloured masks and clothes to hold a “punk prayer” to get rid of President Vladimir Putin.
Sensitivity inside the overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian country is not shared overseas, however, where media coverage of the trial ahead of Friday’s verdict has often cast the women as victims of an oppressive state led by an authoritarian leader.
Western broadcasters and newspapers have featured images of the detainees - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 and Maria Alyokhina, 24 - sitting in a glass box inside the Moscow courtroom.
Public sympathy has grown as the trial reached its climax, with events held in New York, London, Kiev, Sofia and beyond aimed at putting pressure on the Russian government and judicial system to set the women free.
Major music stars have also come out in support, led by Madonna, who performed in Moscow recently with “PUSSY RIOT” painted on her back, while Paul McCartney who wrote a letter calling on the authorities to show clemency.
Arguably the most brazen show of solidarity was in Kiev on Friday, where a topless female rights activist took a chainsaw to a large cross bearing the figure of Christ in the centre of the city.
“No business, not even one as successful as the church, has the right to attack women’s rights,” activist Inna Shevchenko said after cutting down the cross.
Shevchenko, a member of Ukrainian group Femen, which regularly stages bare-breasted shock performances, had “Free Riot” written across her chest. There were no police at the scene.
In the Bulgarian capital Sofia, brightly coloured balaclavas similar to those worn by Pussy Riot members were placed over the heads of bronze statues at a Soviet Army monument, but were quickly removed.
Across the Atlantic, a crowd of several hundred gathered at the Ace Hotel in New York late on Thursday to hear actress Chloe Sevigny, poet Eileen Myles and others read from letters, lyrics and court statements by the three detained women.
Mary O‘Malley, a 24-year-old New Yorker who works in public relations, said she had come on a whim with friends, but appreciated the cause.
“I think it’s cool that these girls my age are in the spotlight and shaking things up right now,” she said.
Myles, who performed several of the night’s readings, was not optimistic about the outcome of the trial.
“I feel a bit negative, though I don’t know if that will be the case,” she said. “It would be amazing ... if the right thing could be done, but it seems like a violation of the system that has been described. So I think it’s unlikely.”
The event was organised by the Free Pussy Riot! movement, which has the backing of Amnesty International and is putting on a series of events on Friday from San Francisco to Sydney in support of the detainees.
Amnesty has also been behind a series of petitions, and David Diaz, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said a list of 12,000 names was handed to the Russian embassy in London this week and more than 70,000 in Washington.
He also said that around 45,000 people had signed up in support of Pussy Riot on the website of Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, showing the women also enjoyed significant support within Russia.
Several Russian cultural figures have backed them, but the response from top musicians has been muted, possibly because they are wary of falling out with Putin and jeopardising their main source of income - high-paying concerts for the super-rich.
“They are part of Putin’s system and scared to leave it,” said Vasily Shumov, who compiled an online collection of songs this year in support of Putin’s opponents.