Amnesty International said yesterday that members of the Pussy Riot punk group who were being held in custody for performing in a cathedral were "prisoners of conscience", in a controversy that has sparked a backlash against the Russian Orthodox Church.
There has been criticism from many quarters that the Church has not taken a more humane approach to the case. The band recorded a brief song in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in the run-up to presidential elections in March, calling on the Virgin Mary to "chase [Vladimir] Putin out".
They themselves were then chased out of the cathedral by security and were later arrested. Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samusevich could all be jailed for up to seven years if they are found guilty of hooliganism charges.
Amnesty said the arrest is "not a justifiable response to the peaceful (if, to many, offensive) expression of their political beliefs" and called on Russia to release the three women.
Russia is at least nominally a majority Orthodox country, and even many liberal Russians were disgusted by Pussy Riot's stunt in the cathedral, and called for them to be punished.
But the refusal to release the three women on bail has turned public opinion in their favour. Many people called on the head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, or the official Church bodies to ask the state to show mercy and release the women, but instead Patriarch Kirill described them as doing the work of Satan and said they should be punished in full accordance with the law. After Patriarch Kirill's stern rebuke, the Russian blogosphere lit up with rumours about his alleged extravagant lifestyle.
The Patriarch was accused by eagle-eyed bloggers last month of wearing a watch made by the Swiss manufacturer Breguet and worth over £20,000. When journalists demanded to know where the watch came from, Patriarch Kirill said that although he had been gifted such a watch, he had never worn it, and any photographs where he appeared to be wearing it were fakes.
However, a number of photographs on his own website appear to show that he has worn the watch.
Patriarch Kirill has also come under scrutiny for a dispute involving a central Moscow flat in his name, in which his distant relatives live. They are suing their neighbours for around £400,000, claiming that repair work caused their apartment to be filled with dust.
A spokesman has said it is "unethical" for the Patriarch's private life to be discussed. The Russian Orthodox Church yesterday hit back, accusing unspecified foreign forces of mounting a campaign against it in retaliation for its support of President Putin.
"The attacks have become more prominent during the pre-election and post-election period," said the Supreme Church Council in a statement yesterday, apparently referring to both the performance by Pussy Riot and the scandals. "[This] shows their political and also anti-Russian motives."
Over the past decade, the Orthodox Church has thrown its weight behind Mr Putin, in return for a more prominent role in society.