A young Russian opposition activist was arrested on his way to a prayer vigil organized in hopes of "delivering" Russia from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is soon to begin his third term as president. The vigil, staged Sunday in front of Moscow's landmark Christ the Savior Cathedral, is seen by some as the latest manifestation of a rise in hostility between the Russian Orthodox Church and pro-democracy activists fed up with the current authoritarian behavior of the regime.
Several riot police officers reportedly forced Roman Dobrokhotov into a police car before he could reach Russia's largest church, the same one in which the Russian all-female punk rock band "Pussy Riot" performed an anti-church song on Feb. 21. The group was later arrested, and three members are facing up to seven years in jail. The band's performance was a protest against the church's involvement with state affairs, as the institution has been a known backer of Putin, viewed as an autocratic ruler by many Russians.
Several dozen opposition activists gathered near Christ the Savior Cathedral Sunday for an unsanctioned rally in support of the members of "Pussy Riot," local media reported. The group was apparently confronted by church activists, who sprinkled them with holy water. Parts of the recorded incident can be viewed here in Russian.
Dobrokhotov claimed he was also beaten by a nationalist group immediately after his release from police custody. The young man claims seven men assaulted him, damaging his ear.
"They looked like soccer fans," he told The Associated Press. "Luckily, police interrupted them and detained one of them." Opposition leaders have long claimed that pro-Kremlin youth movements hire soccer fans to disperse anti-Kremlin rallies and beat up government critics, according to AP.
"I'm ok, although my ear is wounded," Dobrokhotov tweeted the same day.
The incident is the latest in a string of clashes between pro-democracy activists in Russia and the Orthodox Church, which has been heavily criticized for supporting Putin for the presidency, which he gained on March 4. Putin will be inaugurated as president on May 7 for a six-year term. Current President Dmitry Medvedev will switch roles with Putin, resuming his position as Russia's prime minister -- a decision by the Kremlin that angers much of the Russian public.
Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest in Orthodox Christianity, said recently that the church is under attack, especially following the incident involving the punk band and churches being desecrated, priests beaten and icons destroyed. The patriarch was often shown in the company of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev on state television, and the church has reportedly been granted the role of a de facto policy adviser to the Kremlin.
During the nationwide Day of Prayer on April 24, Kirill declared that that the church is "under attack by persecutors."
"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 said.
"Today we are witnessing a powerful anti-Church rhetoric which has unfortunately coincided with Lent," Kirill also said in early April.
The Russian Orthodox Church claims it is being ostracized by "those pushing through radical liberal values" for its stern opposition to homosexual marriages, consumerism, the spread of violence and adultery."
Meanwhile, activist Dobrokhotov, who was tweeting on the way to Christ the Savior Cathedral and immediately after, posted a short message on his account that suggests another protest might take place on May 6, the day before Putin's inauguration.