Madonna waded into the Pussy Riot controversy Tuesday, riling supporters of the Orthodox church and encouraging beleaguered Russian liberals with a strong statement of support for the three women accused of profaning an Orthodox altar with an obscenity-laced "punk prayer" last February.
The Queen of Pop, who is in Moscow to open a branch of her Hard Candy luxury fitness clubs and to play a single concert, told journalists it would be "a tragedy" if the Pussy Riot women had to serve any more jail time than the five months they have already been in pretrial detention.
Their trial, which has mainly showcased the offended feelings of Orthodox believers over the "blasphemous" 40-second performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, is wending through its final stages in Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court.
On Tuesday, prosecutors called for the women to receive a three-year jail term, which is far short of the seven years they could receive on the charge of "inciting religious hatred." That could reflect President Vladimir Putin's remarks to journalists last week, in which he hoped out loud that the women wouldn't be punished "too harshly" even though there was "nothing good" in Pussy Riot's behavior.
"I am against censorship and my whole career I always promoted freedom of expression, freedom of speech, so obviously I think what's happening to them is unfair and I hope that they do not.... I hope they do not have to serve seven years in jail," Madonna told journalists in Moscow Tuesday. "That would be a tragedy."
Meddling by Madonna?
That brought an immediate response from a leading church support group, the Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers, which said Madonna was meddling in Russia's internal affairs and ought to be asked to leave the country.
"It is not in our power to ban her, but we call on the authorities – who position themselves as Orthodox believers – to do so," a spokesman for the group was quoted as saying by the independent Interfax agency. "This little singer is openly mocking our laws, our traditions and our culture," he added.
Madonna is better known for her many clashes with the Roman Catholic Church during the course of her controversial career. But she infuriated Russia's Orthodox Church last March by openly declaring on her Facebook page that she intends to speak out against church-backed legislation banning "homosexual propaganda," when she performs in St. Petersburg later this month.
"I will come to St. Petersburg to speak up for the gay community, to support the gay community and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed," Madonna wrote at the time. "I don’t run away from adversity. I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity."
The Pussy Riot trial has already divided Russian society between the conservative majority, who support criminal judgement against the women, and more educated and liberal urbanites who fear the trial may be aimed at setting legal precedents that can later be used more widely to stifle free speech and enforce ideological conformity.
Madonna joins dozens of Western celebrities who've called upon Russian authorities to show leniency toward the women, including Sting, Pete Townshend, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, Faith No More, film director Terry Gilliam, songwriter Peter Gabriel, and actor Danny DeVito.
It is not known what the Kremlin thinks about the unprecedented outpouring of Western solidarity with Pussy Riot, but the state news agency RIA-Novosti recently ran a column arguing that outside pressure is only likely to make Russian authorities more stubborn in their determination to punish the women.