The Russian government is facing a growing chorus of criticism over its harsh treatment of three women from an all-female rock band who staged a "punk" prayer service last winter in Moscow's most prominent cathedral.
Back on Feb. 21, two weeks before Russia's presidential election, several members of the band Pussy Riot, wearing brightly colored balaclavas, rushed onto the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
They briefly sang one of their songs, "Holy Crap," which includes the line, "Holy Mother, deliver us from Putin," a reference to Vladimir Putin, who easily won the election.
Two women, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested about a week later; a third, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was taken into custody in mid-March. All three have remained jailed, and a Moscow judge recently extended the pretrial detention for the women.
Because the rockers in the cathedral were masked, it's not clear what evidence led police to arrest these particular women.
They have been charged with hooliganism — a crime that carries a prison term of up to seven years.
Church Takes A Hard Line
The case has sparked intense debate in Russia, where about 75 percent of the people identify themselves as Russian Orthodox believers.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is taking a hard line when it comes to the protesters. He has rejected calls for leniency for the women, saying, "The devil laughed at us" when the band staged its act of guerrilla theater.
Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior prelate, claimed this week that he had had a divine revelation in which God condemned the performance and said that the members of the band must repent for what they have done.
Video of the performance was posted on the Internet, where band members could be seen dancing and playing guitars in one of the most sacred spaces for Orthodox worship.
A Political Protest In A Religious Space
The band later said the performance was a protest against the church's support for Putin.
In a post on their blog, the band chastised Patriarch Kirill, saying, "We were deeply saddened that you allowed the church to become a weapon in a dirty election campaign and urged the faithful to vote for a man who is as far as can be from God's truth."
During the campaign, the patriarch pronounced that the rule of Putin, who has been prime minister or president for a dozen years, was "a miracle of God."
That statement came during a time when thousands of protesters were taking to the streets to protest Putin's move to run for president after serving the past four years as prime minister. He previously served as president from 2000 to 2008.
The cathedral performance was the latest in a series of politically charged protests by the band.
The group had staged a number of performances promoting feminist issues and protesting Putin over the previous several months, including one in a Moscow subway station and another in Red Square, just outside the Kremlin.
When the judge denied the bail request last week, several hundred supporters of the women protested the decision, and 15 people were arrested for violating public order.
On Tuesday, more than 100 prominent figures in Russia's arts and culture scene delivered an appeal to the Russian courts, asking that the women be freed and that the criminal case against them be dismissed.
The courts declined to take up the issue.
A 'Blow To The Heart'
Many Orthodox believers have said the women should be freed, though they also make it clear that they do not condone what the group did.
"We're dealing here with a major provocation," says Andrei Zolotov Jr., a journalist who closely follows the Russian Orthodox Church. "It drove a painful blow to the very heart of the Orthodox community."
"What I really hope," he says, "is that people will understand that [these] women have done a terrible thing. I couldn't write anything about this for two days, because I was so wounded by this."
But Zolotov says he signed an open letter to the patriarch calling for leniency.
"A fine would be an appropriate punishment," he says, noting that the arrest of the women has been "unfortunate" in terms of public relations for the church.
"After their action, the public opinion was on the side of the church," Zolotov says, "but after the arrest, public opinion turned in favor of [the women]."
The Russian and foreign media have focused on the photogenic Tolokonnikova, sitting in a cage in a Moscow courtroom, and have made much of the fact that two of the accused are mothers of young children.
Since the arrests took place, Amnesty International has declared the women to be prisoners of conscience.
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