MOSCOW — The powerful Russian Orthodox patriarch on Sunday vowed that the Church was stronger than its critics after a series of scandals tarnished its image in the run-up to Easter.
Patriarch Kirill said a spate of recent controversies were all part of a general "anti-Church struggle" waged by its detractors, warning that the Church had proved during the Soviet era that it could not be destroyed.
The Church has in the last weeks endured ridicule for editing out of an official photograph an expensive watch worn by Kirill and anger over harsh treatment of three female "punk rockers" who tried to perform in a church.
Kirill overnight led a packed Easter Day service attended by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the vast Moscow Church of Christ the Saviour, in a new show of the Church's political strength.
State television then broadcast a typically pugnacious interview by the patriarch in which he described the recent attacks on the Church as "links in one chain" and said critics were simply unhappy with its popularity.
"We tell the whole world -- the Church cannot be destroyed. When more powerful forces tried to do this, they failed," said Kirill, saying the Soviet regime had sought the "complete destruction" of the Russian Orthodox Church.
"The Church has become awkward for some. It is now -- even louder than before -- saying what is good and what is evil."
He said good and evil were absolute criteria and accused "liberal society" of seeking to define the concepts for themselves, a path that would lead to "the destruction of moral consensus, legal chaos.. and then apocalypse."
The Russian Orthodox Church has seen a huge upsurge in power after the fall of the atheist Soviet Union and its leaders take a strong stand on moral issues that the Kremlin hardly ever ignores.
Putin -- an ex-KGB agent who revealed earlier this year his mother had him secretly christened in the Soviet Union -- has enjoyed unstinting support from the Church during his 12-year domination of Russia.
"It gives joy to say that in the last years cooperation between the Church, the state and public institutions has become considerably enhanced," Putin said in a congratulatory Easter message to Kirill.
"New areas (for cooperation) have emerged in culture and education, bringing up children and strengthening the family, as well as charity.
But the Church is also criticised by secular liberals for straying too freely into pro-Putin politics, in particular during the outburst of protests against his rule, and has faced a spate of recent scandals.
The Church was forced to admit it doctored a photo of Kirill on its official website to erase his expensive watch, after bloggers spotted that the lavish timepiece was reflected on a polished table but was not present on his wrist.
Kirill's watch has been a subject of controversy ever since he wore it on a visit to Ukraine in 2009. Perceptive observers identified the model as a Breguet, which costs about 30,000 euros.
It has also faced criticism over the case of three members of female punk group Pussy Riot who were arrested after attempting to perform anti-Putin songs in the Church of Christ the Saviour and risk up to seven years in jail.
Two of the women have been in custody since early March and many activists say their imprisonment in pre-trial detention is already a hugely excessive punishment.
Last month the patriarch venomously criticised the women, saying that "the devil had a laugh at all of us" and criticising their supporters for "trying to justify this blasphemy, to minimise it, to present it as a fun joke."
The Church of Christ the Saviour is itself a potent symbol of the revival of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. It was rebuilt in the 1990s after being blown up under Stalin's rule in 1931 and then turned into an open-air swimming pool.
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