(Photo: REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov)
More than 40,000 people gathered at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow as Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared on Sunday, a nationwide Day of Prayer, that the church is "under attack by persecutors."
The Day of Prayer was indented to unite Russia's believers amid the recent turmoil the church has faced, particularly relating to criticism of its support of president-elect Vladimir Putin, who is considered unpopular in some circles, especially among the country's youth, Reuters reported.
The Russian Orthodox Church leader told those gathered Sunday at an outdoor stage that regardless of political differences, desecrating a church should never be an acceptable practice.
"We are 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," Kiril said, perhaps referring to an incident from February.
On Feb. 21, the Russian all-female punk rock band "Pussy Riot" broke into Christ the Savior Cathedral and performed an anti-church song at the altar, where only priests are allowed to stand. It was an act of defiance against the church, and supported by people demanding that it stay out of state affairs. The group was later arrested, and three members are facing up to seven years in jail.
Patriarch Kirill is well known for his support of Putin, having called his political career "a miracle of God" before Russia's presidential elections on March 4.
Kirill has also often been spotted on state TV in the company of Putin, the current prime minister, and President Dmitry Medvedev, reportedly serving as a policy adviser on a number of social issues.
Orthodox churches have suffered a number of vandalism attacks in recent months, including an incident in which a man drove a knife through a veneration cross.
Many gathered at the Sunday assembly, however, insisted that the church needs to be united to overcome such attacks.
"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. "When I walked up and became part of this crowd I wanted to cry. To see this is happiness."
"My only hope today is in the church," added 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."