MOSCOW (Reuters) - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church warned tens of thousands of believers on Sunday they were "under attack by persecutors" on a nationwide day of prayer intended to heal divisions over a protest at the altar by a women's punk band.
At least 40,000 people came to hear Patriarch Kirill lead them in prayer at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, where Pussy Riot performed a "punk prayer" on February 21 deriding the Church's close relationship with President-elect Vladimir Putin.
The incident, and the arrest of three band members who face up to seven years in jail for their performance, has ignited a debate about the Church's role in politics and left Kirill open to criticism from inside and outside the Church.
"We are under attack by persecutors," said the Patriarch, his bass voice booming out through speakers from an outdoor stage where he stood under the cathedral's steep white walls and golden domes, flanked by red- and gold-robed priests.
"The danger is in the very fact that blasphemy, derision of the sacred is put forth as a lawful expression of human freedom which must be protected in a modern society."
Kirill depicts Christ the Saviour as a symbol of the resurgence of the Orthodox Church since the end of atheist Soviet rule in 1991. It was rebuilt in the 1990s after being razed in the Soviet era and converted into a swimming pool.
But Kirill, who has steered the Church towards a more active role in politics, has faced criticism over his overt support for Putin, a former KGB spy whose 12-year rule has been described by the patriarch as a "miracle of God".
The Orthodox Church has described Pussy Riot's protest as the first in a series of anti-clerical acts of vandalism.
"This series of acts of vandalism ... it's because the Church now backs the state very strongly and this wave is mostly against the current authorities," said Anastasia Pavlukhova, 20, a theology student, who made the 1,350 km (840 mile) journey to the event from the southern city of Pyatigorsk by bus with her parish.
"I don't think it is right for the Church to meddle in state affairs ... but there are better ways to protest," she said.
On March 6, a man took an axe to icons in a church northeast of Moscow in Veliky Ustyug. Two weeks later, an assailant with a hunting knife desecrated the altar and beat up a priest in a church in the southern Russian city of Nevinnomyssk.
"I came here because there is a very big threat of returning to our godless past. I can't imagine Russia not being an Orthodox country," said Olga Golubeva, a 54-year-old lawyer in a red headscarf. "When I walked up and became part of this crowd I wanted to cry. To see this is happiness."
A choir sang on the steps outside as bells chimed. Some worshippers carried icons, and others waved Russian flags.
The Orthodox Church said 50,000 people attended the prayer service, though Reuters journalists estimated that 40,000 took part. Russian television said more people than usual attended church in big cities such as St Petersburg and Yaroslavl.
Earlier this month, Church leaders called on Orthodox Christians to attend Sunday's ceremony to pray "in defense of the faith, desecrated sanctuaries, the Church and its good name".
Kirill has also been criticized over his ownership of a luxury watch, which bloggers said was air-brushed out of a photograph, and for winning thousands of dollars in compensation in a lawsuit against neighbors of a flat he owns in central Moscow. Aides have dismissed the criticism.
His call for tough punishment of the three members of Pussy Riot, who sang at the altar in short dresses and colored masks after bursting into the cathedral, has divided the Church, with some clergy and faithful urging him to show leniency.
"The Church needs this kind of demonstration to show it has more supporters than critics, but also to consolidate the clergy and parishioners," Alexei Makarkin, of the Moscow Centre for Political Technologies, said of Sunday's prayers.
"Within the Church itself, opinion has been divided over what was worse: The 'punk prayer' or the Church's reaction to it, the scandal or the demand for severe punishment of the girls."
Many people at the Moscow ceremony dismissed criticism of the institution which enjoys its highest level of public trust since the onset of chaotic capitalism in the 1990s, and complained about what they see as a lowering of moral standards.
"My only hope today is in the Church," said Yelena Antonova, a 52-year-old librarian. "The state is not yet passing the right laws to protect society from this total absence of morality that now reigns ... I think that if the Church and state are closer, it will be healthier for society."
A court last week extended the pre-trial detention of the three members of Pussy Riot at a hearing where supporters scuffled with police. They face "hooliganism" charges over their rendition of "Holy Mother, throw Putin out!".
Pussy Riot's action was part of a protest movement against Prime Minister Putin's grip on Russia that has lost momentum since he won a presidential election on March 4.
Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Andrew Osborn