MOSCOW The head of the Russian Orthodox church on Wednesday called the 12 years of Vladimir Putin's rule a "miracle of God" and criticised his opponents, at a gathering where religious leaders heaped praise on the prime minister.
Putin wants support from spiritual figures for his campaign to win his third term in the Kremlin in a March 4 election. He is facing a growing protest movement and needs to consolidate his core support to avoid a runoff.
Putin has built his campaign on a contrast with the turbulent 1990s, when millions were thrown into poverty after the collapse of the Soviet Union while ethnic conflicts such as the war in Chechnya threatened to tear Russia apart.
Patriarch Kirill, a bearded cleric seen as a modernising figure in the Russian church, the largest in Orthodox Christianity, compared the period preceding Putin's ascent to power to the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
"What were the 2000s then? Through a miracle of God, with the active participation of the country's leadership, we managed to exit this horrible, systemic crisis," Kirill told a meeting at the ancient St. Daniel's monastery.
"I should say it openly as a patriarch who must only tell the truth, not paying attention to the political situation or propaganda, you personally played a massive role in correcting this crooked twist of our history," Kirill said.
Putin replaced the ailing Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000. He presided over an oil-fuelled economic boom until the global economic crisis struck the country in 2008.
Banned by the constitution from running for a third consecutive term, Putin stepped down in 2008 but remained in charge in the position of prime minister.
He looks set to win the election despite the biggest opposition protests of his rule but may be forced into a second round if he fails to get more than 50 percent of the vote in the first.
Kirill called opposition demands to "ear-piercing shrieks" and said the protesters represented a minority of Russians. He said Western consumer culture was admired by many of Putin's opponents and was a major threat to Russia.
"The majority, I assure you, are those who agree with what I am saying," Kirill said.
Kirill's speech was echoed by leaders of other faiths.
"You had it right, the fact that they (opposition protests) took place on Saturday suggests that it was not a Jewish business," Russia's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, told Putin.
"We joked in the synagogue that it would have been better to come for a prayer on that day."
The gathering was also attended by four muftis from predominantly Muslim Russian regions, a Buddhist lama, an Armenian bishop and representatives of Roman Catholics and other Christian churches.
"Muslims know you, Muslims trust you, Muslims are wishing you success," said mufti Ravil Gainutdin. Mufti Ismail Berdiyev from the turbulent North Caucasus added: "You are the only person who has shown the United States its place."
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; editing by Andrew Roche)