January 7, 2012 / 7:16 PM / in 7 years

Russian church urges Kremlin to heed protesters

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The leader of Russia’s Orthodox Church urged the government Saturday to make political changes in response to post-election protests, in a rare departure from its traditional backing of the Kremlin.

Patriarch Kirill’s comments suggested the church may want to mediate between government and protesters.

“The main thing is for protests, which are properly expressed, to lead to a correction of the political course,” Kirill said in an interview on state television on Orthodox Christmas Day.

“If the government remains insensitive to the expressions of protest, it is a very bad sign, it is a sign of the failure of the authorities to make adjustments,” he said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has faced mass demonstrations following a December 4 election that protesters and international observers said was marred by fraud and violations.

Despite mounting pressure, Putin is expected to comfortably win a presidential vote in March and return to the Kremlin.

Kirill also warned protesters against what he said was the risk of being manipulated by opposition leaders seeking to seize power for themselves. He said Russia could not risk a repeat of the revolution that swept the communists to power in 1917.

“Then we were unable to preserve balance and wisdom. We destroyed our country,” he said. “Why did this happen? Because the fair protests of people are very easily manipulated by those political forces who are fighting for power.”

He said the church retained its neutrality in political matters. “Among our congregation are both the people who were at the demonstration and those they were speaking out against, therefore the word of the Church cannot be politicised.”

Endorsed by the Kremlin as Russia’s main faith, the Orthodox Church has grown increasingly influential since the end of the Soviet era two decades ago. Human rights groups have complained the church’s close ties to the state undermine Russia’s secularism.

Last month, Kirill warned Russians not to be corrupted by social networking sites, which have spearheaded the organization of the anti-government protests.

President Dmitry Medvedev marked the Orthodox Christmas by attending a midnight mass celebrated by Kirill at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, while Putin celebrated at a church in his hometown of St. Petersburg.

Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo

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