Three Russian women are currently in jail, awaiting trial on charges of hooliganism, after they allegedly held an impromptu anti-government punk show in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The Russian Orthodox Church is so unhappy with this “blasphemy” that its priests have collected signatures from their congregations to pressure the judiciary into handing the women severe sentences. Our Observer, an Orthodox priest, thinks this is a bad idea.
 
Pussy Riot, as it calls itself, is a mysterious group of women – they all wear vividly coloured ski masks to hide their faces. Formed in August 2011, they rose to fame after singing a song with the refrain “[Vladimir] Putin is a sissy” in Moscow’s Red Square in January. They were promptly fined.
 
 
Their latest stunt has had graver consequences. On February 19, the women burst into Moscow’s cathedral and started jumping up and down, singing “Holy Mother, chase Putin out!” Their song also included allegations that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church had ties to the former KGB. They called their performance “a punk prayer.”
 
 
On March 3, two women – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Marina Alyokhina – were arrested on hooliganism charges over the cathedral incident. A third woman, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was arrested on March 16. All three have denied they are members of Pussy Riot or that they took part in the performance. They are now in jail, awaiting their trial in April.
 
Russians are bitterly divided by the case. Many members of Russia’s opposition parties have asked for the women to be released, arguing that two of them have young children to take care of. Rallies in their honour have been held in cities around Russia, and over 6,000 people, including several orthodox priests, have signed a petition asking for their release.
 
Meanwhile, many Orthodox Christians are outraged by what they see as a defilement of Moscow’s cathedral. On March 18, the Russian media discovered that the Russian Orthodox Church was distributing a petition to its priests, asking them to have all their congregants sign it. The letter calls for not just the women, but also their associates and the media that covered their performance, to be condemned to sentences that would serve as an example to all. The Orthodox Church claims the letter was a private initiative carried out by a few priests.

“This injures the reputation of the church in society’s eyes”

Konstantin Kravtsov is a Russian Orthodox priest.
 
Pussy Riot’s performance was clearly political, but it was also an affront to our religious leadership. So it inevitably provoked a reaction both in religious and civic circles. However I think this reaction would have been much milder if they had not been arrested. Personally, I find their treatment a bit harsh. Why must they be sent to jail, instead of just making them sign a form saying they will not leave the territory before their trial?
 
The letter calling to charge the women and their collaborators with a criminal offence is not a private initiative. The congregants’ signatures were collected following a written order by a Protopope [a priest of high rank in the Orthodox Church], which I saw with my own eyes. In my view, it’s contrary to the Christian spirit. Our Lord calls us to clemency, not to lynching. It’s true that the Old Testament punishes blasphemy – as some may characterize this performance – by stoning. But the New Testament hasn’t inherited this article. The only punishment our church can administrate is excommunication, but that, of course, can only be administrated to church members, and we don’t know if these women belong to the church. If they’re not Christian, nothing can be done. In my view, pushing the judiciary to sentence these women for “igniting religious hatred” is simply disproportionate, and injures the reputation of the church in society’s eyes.”
 
 
Post written with freelance journalist Ostap Karmodi.