MOSCOW (AP) - Russia's top Orthodox clerics on Saturday asked for mercy for the punk band Pussy Riot for its anti-government protest in a Moscow cathedral, but the church's forgiveness is unlikely to change the band's punishment in a case that caused an international furor over political dissent.
Despite its plea for clemency for the three rock activists, a leading cleric called the demonstration ``awful'' and defiant of the powerful church that is the heart of Russia's national identity.
The case, which ended Friday with the three band members' conviction for hooliganism and sentence to two years each in prison, became an emblem of Russia's intolerance of dissent and was widely seen as a warning that authorities will tolerate opposition only under tightly controlled conditions.
Tikhon Shevkunov, who is widely believed to be President Vladimir Putin's spiritual counselor, said on state television Saturday that his church forgave the singers after their ``punk prayer'' in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in February.
``We did forgive them from the very start. But such actions should be cut short by society and authorities,'' said the cleric, who heads Moscow's Sretensky Monastery.
Archpriest Maxim Kozlov agreed, but he also said on state TV that his church hopes the young women and their supporters change their ways.
``We are simply praying and hoping that these young women and all these people shouting in front of the court building, committing sacrilegious acts not only in Russia but in other countries, realize that their acts are awful,'' he said. ``And despite this the church is asking for mercy within the limits of law.''
Both clerics supported the court's decision to prosecute Pussy Riot, despite an international outcry that incited global protests from Moscow to New York and condemnation from musicians like Madonna and Paul McCartney. Governments, including those in the United States, Britain, France and Germany, denounced the sentences as disproportionate.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were arrested in March after dancing and high-kicking in the cathedral as they called on the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin, who was elected to a third term as Russia's president two weeks later.
A Moscow court sentenced them Friday following a trial that was widely seen as Kremlin-orchestrated.
The conviction comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorized demonstrations by 150 times to 300,000 rubles (about $9,000). Another measure requires non-government organizations that both engage in vaguely defined political activity and receive funding from abroad to register as ``foreign agents.''
The Pussy Riot case has underlined the vast influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although church and state are formally separate, critics say its strength and symbolism in the country effectively makes it a quasi-state entity. Some Orthodox groups and many believers had urged strong punishment for an action they consider blasphemous.
The church has a history of cracking down on its critics in post-Soviet Russia: Gleb Yakunin, a priest and former lawmaker was defrocked and excommunicated after discovering in the early 1990s that church leaders had been enlisted as KGB agents.
The current head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, has made no secret of his strong support for Putin, praising his leadership as ``God's miracle,'' and has described the punk performance as part of an assault by ``enemy forces'' on the church.
The church has ardently backed the Kremlin, consecrating new nuclear missiles as ``Russia's guardian angels'' and urged young Russians to volunteer for military service in Chechnya.
At the time of the prank, Kirill himself was a focus of the growing opposition to the church.
His reputation was tarnished by a pair of scandals involving a (euro) 30,000 ($38,832) Breguet watch he was seen wearing and a court case in which he won 20 million rubles ($630,000) from a cancer-stricken neighbor; despite his monastic vows not to have any worldly possessions while serving the church.
In a statement on Friday, the Orthodox Church called the band's stunt a ``sacrilege'' and a ``reflection of rude animosity toward millions of people and their feelings.'' It also asked the authorities to ``show clemency toward the convicted in the hope that they will refrain from new sacrilegious actions.''
Meanwhile, new appeals for the band's release came from the entertainment world. Madonna called the sentence ``harsh'' and ``inhumane'' in a statement Saturday and asked the court to change its mind.
``I call on all those who love freedom to condemn this unjust punishment. I urge artists around the world to speak up in protest against this travesty,'' the musician said.
``They've spent enough time in jail. I call on ALL of Russia to let Pussy Riot go free,'' she said.