Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate leader Patriarch Kirill (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church rejected criticism of his increasingly strong relationship with President Vladimir Putin, saying that close ties between the church and state are good for society.
Opposition groups and some Russian Orthodox believers have voiced concern about the church's closeness to the state in a debate fueled by the two-year prison terms given last month to three members of the Pussy Riot punk band who protested in a Moscow cathedral.
Patriarch Kirill, who has called Putin's long rule a "miracle of God," did not name the president or Pussy Riot in a speech to students Friday, but he underlined the importance of cooperation between the church and state and criticized calls for a totally secular state.
"The institution of power appeared in the world, in a society prone to sin, to safeguard this society so that people could live together," the patriarch said in a speech at Moscow State University.
"So clear and very definite support by the Orthodox Church for the institution of state authorities does not amount to an assessment of this or that politician or state figure by every representative of the church," he said. "But it is indispensable to understand that safeguarding the institution of power is a guarantee of a flourishing society."
Putin, a former KGB leader, has increasingly promoted Orthodox Christianity during his 12-year rule while also making it clear that there is a place for many religions in Russia.
However, Pussy Riot musicians reignited the debate about the church's role in the mainly Orthodox country when they burst into a Moscow cathedral in February to give a profanity-laced rendition of song criticizing Putin's ties with the church.
Kirill, who backed Putin in this year's presidential election, has said the Russian Orthodox Church is under attack from enemies who want to mock and destroy it.
The July killing of a Muslim leader and wounding of another in Tatarstan, in Russia's heartland, also raised fears in the Kremlin that an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus may be spilling over into other regions.
The attacks prompted calls for unity by Putin, who said he would not let religious or ethnic extremism tear Russia apart.
The State Duma is now working on changes to the Criminal Code that would introduce prison terms of up to three years for anyone convicted of offending religious believers' feelings.
Critics say that the law would blur the line between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church and that the state could use the law to stifle Putin's critics.
The parliament, which is dominated by Putin's United Russia party, has already passed measures that the opposition considers repressive, such as larger fines for protesters who step out of line and tougher punishment for defamation.
About 70 percent of Russian citizens describe themselves as Russian Orthodox Christians, but far fewer attend church regularly. All major faiths, however, have enjoyed revivals since the collapse of the communist Soviet Union in 1991.