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In desecration of crosses, Russia's Orthodox church sees dark warning

The Russian Orthodox Church said an antireligious campaign – in sympathy with Pussy Riot punk band – was under way after four large wooden crosses were destroyed over the weekend.

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Church officials began seriously complaining of a wave of sacrilegious assaults early this year, citing the Pussy Riot affair and other acts of vandalism to suggest a wider conspiracy to undermine the church's prestige and authority in Russian society.

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Pro-church commentators have been quick to argue that the weekend attacks on crosses, which are a fundamental symbol of Christianity, look like an unambiguous assault on religious believers and cannot be mistaken for a "political protest" as the women of Pussy Riot claimed they were carrying out.

"These actions clearly speak of the moral values ​​of those who are attacking the church," Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading church spokesman, told the independent Interfax agency. "With these symbolic actions they are seeking to impose their will on the majority of the population," he added.

At an April rally in Moscow of about 50,000 people called to defend the church from its enemies, Patriarch Kirill warned that individual acts of blasphemy and sacrilege presented a profound threat to social order.

"We are under attack by persecutors," Kirill said at the time. "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."

Some critics argue the main problem is not the acts of vandalism and profanity – however reprehensible they may be – but that the church has overstepped the bounds of secular society and is seeking to regain its traditional role as ideological gatekeeper of the Russian state.

In recent years, the church has been criticized for backing criminal prosecutions of artists and gallery directors who display allegedly blasphemous art works, for attempting to prescribe how Russian women ought to dress in public, and for being excessive in its demands for the return of historic church lands and artifacts that were nationalized and handed over to Russian state museums in Soviet times.

Several scandals have rocked the church in recent months, including blog-fueled revelations about the lavish lifestyles and wealth of Patriarch Kirill and other top clergy. This month, Russian media reported a still largely unexplained story about a senior priest at a leading Moscow church who, allegedly drunk and driving an expensive sports car with foreign diplomatic plates, plowed into two other cars, causing massive damage and several injuries.

During the presidential election campaign last winter, Patriarch Kirill publicly described candidate Putin as "a miracle from God," which many critics – including the women of Pussy Riot – took as a violation of Russia's strictly secular constitution and a sign of a growing political nexus between church and state.

"This is not a simple or one-sided issue," says Mr. Mukhin. "Now the church is trying to persuade everyone that there is a great monster menacing the church and society. Yes, vandalism is a threat, but the behavior and public actions of the church are agitating society and are part of the problem."

IN PICTURES: Russians vs. Putin

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