WARSAW The head of the Russian Orthodox Church made a historic visit to Poland on Thursday with a message of reconciliation that risked being overshadowed by the trial of women punk rockers for a stunt in Moscow's main cathedral.
Human rights groups plan to stage protests during the four-day visit by Patriarch Kirill, who has criticized Pussy Riot, the band which sang a "punk prayer" against President Vladimir Putin at the altar of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February.
The Moscow court will issue its verdict on the three women on Friday in a case that has drawn international condemnation by musicians and free speech advocates and by Putin's opponents in Russia who say it shows his intolerance of political dissent.
The performance was meant to highlight the close ties between Putin and the patriarch, who called the Russian leader's period as president and prime minister "a miracle of God".
Many Russians considered the protest blasphemous and the women face up to years in jail if convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" on Friday.
Rights groups in Poland said Kirill - who aims to ease historic tensions between the two countries - would not be allowed to avoid the issue.
"(Kirill) is obviously very involved in the Pussy Riot case as the church has refused to stand in defense of these women. So obviously the Orthodox Church plays a role in the political imprisonment of these women in Russia," said Elena Zacharenko, in the Warsaw office of Amnesty International.
The group plans protests during Kirill's visit, including a march to the Russian embassy.
PAINFUL PAGES OF HISTORY
The Orthodox church said Kirill had no plans to discuss the trial.
"It's hard for me to say what would the questions be to His Holiness Patriarch. But, clearly, this theme cannot be on the agenda of the talks as it is not part of our bilateral ties," said Rev. Igor Yakimchuk, a senior member of the Russian Orthodox Church's Department for External Relations.
Polish media have focused on the call for reconciliation that Kirill will sign on Friday with Archbishop Jozef Michalik, head of Poland's Roman Catholic Church.
"The goal of this document is not to settle the painful pages of history shared by Poland and Russia. The essential issue is instead to start this dialogue, to talk on the basis of the same scripture of Christ," said Father Jozef Kloch, spokesman for the Polish Episcopal Conference.
Many Poles look at their eastern neighbor with concern after the Soviet Union's domination of Poland for more than four decades. Russia also controlled a large part of eastern Poland for more than a century before World War I.
"As people of faith we should use the power of God, we should pray for the reconciliation between our nations. To do this truthfully, we should take the first step," Kirill told Polish public radio.
"Two churches responsible for the spiritual life of their nations declare that they are ready to forgive the sins of the past, are ready to call on their nations to write a new page in history," he said.
While most of Poland's 38 million population consider themselves Catholic, the Orthodox Church is Poland's second-largest religious group with about half a million members.
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe and Michal Scheibe in Warsaw and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)