Moscow: Church bells rang across Moscow on Sunday as thousands of Orthodox faithful gathered at Russia`s main cathedral to pray for the "correction" of feminist punks who face jail for singing before its altar.
The balaclava and miniskirt-clad members of the protest group Pussy Riot burst into the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February and belted out bits of a song denouncing the Church`s open support for president-elect Vladimir Putin.
The incident received little attention at first and the group was released after being booked.
But the Church soon turned it into a rallying call and other Putin backers joined ranks as they sought to build a movement capable of standing up to the protests that preceded the ex-KGB agent`s election to a third term.
Church officials said they expected perhaps 100,000 to join a mass prayer led by Patriarch Kirill outside the Moscow cathedral following his traditional Sunday morning sermon.
"Recently, our country, our people -- Orthodox in their majority -- and the Church have gone through... A repeated defilement of our relics, the defamation of the very name of the faithful," the patriarch read in the morning prayer.
"When an evil hand touches the sacred, it cannot destroy its sanctity. Instead, it gets scathed with tremendous power for committing the sacrilege," he warned before nearly 20,000 people gathered inside and around the church.
The Church said the patriarch would later call for "the correction of the defilers of holy shrines and the good name of the Church" and the "enlightenment of those left in the dark."
The icons the Church said were "defiled" by Pussy Riot and others in alleged attacks across Russia were later expected to be brought out before the praying masses for a special ceremony cleansing them of other people`s sins.
Massive screens set up outside the cathedral meanwhile featured various celebrities calling on Russians to unite in Orthodox faith.
"When Communism disappeared, the last stronghold of Russia`s genetic code -- its key -- became Orthodoxy," Oscar-winning film maker Nikita Mikhalkov said in the film.
Many of those who had gathered by the early afternoon came in marching under tsarist-era flags representing nationalist forces and the various youth groups.
Some marched under flags reading "Holy Russia" while others held up a banner saying "Rise up for your faith, Russian land."
"We cannot say for sure whether there will be 25,000 or 250,000," said Church spokesman Vladimir Vigilyansky. "But many said they would like to attend."