MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of people came to the square in front of a Moscow cathedral Sunday in a show of support for the Russian Orthodox Church, which is facing criticism for its close ties to the Kremlin and the wealth of its leaders.
Under golden cupolas and a warm spring sun, church leaders dressed in red-and-gold robes carried crosses and icons around the mighty white walls of Christ the Savior Cathedral in a procession led by Patriarch Kirill.
"What are we doing, my dears, here today, having gathered in such a multitude?" the patriarch said to the crowd, which consisted predominantly of middle-aged and elderly women, who, according to church etiquette, were wearing head scarves. "We are not threatening anyone; we are not demonstrating our force."
Rather, he said, it was a "fateful" moment of history, and no one could forbid the faithful to gather in prayer.
Police estimated the crowd at 65,000, but it appeared to be smaller.
"It was a chance in a lifetime to see the patriarch like this," said Anna Bugayeva, a 54-year-old accountant from the town of Chekhov near Moscow. "I was a little worried that he is in danger, but he seems to be in good health and quite well protected."
Experts across the political spectrum agreed that the gathering was in fact meant as a demonstration of force.
"It was a powerful but peaceful show of the church's might," said Maxim Shevchenko, a popular television TV anchor and member of the presidential Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body. "The church demonstrated today that it is not a defenseless society of strange people who can be insulted and hurt with impunity."
The appeal from the patriarchate for this pro-church rally came amid a controversy that started in February with a group of young women who rushed into the cathedral to perform a song-and-dance routine with sacks over their heads in a protest against Russia's most powerful politician, Vladimir Putin.
The detention of three of them pending trial has split Russians, with the patriarchate and its supporters demanding severe punishment. The patriarchate cited several recent attacks on churches, the defilement of icons and the beating of a priest as evidence of an organized campaign against the church backed by pro-Western business and media elites.
Opponents declared the three young women prisoners of conscience.
In the weeks that followed, Kirill was the target of news reports and blog entries accusing him of a weakness for luxury. Examples included his wearing a watch worth thousands of dollars and owning a lavish apartment across the river from the cathedral. The patriarch is a monk by status and is not supposed to own real estate.
Critics charged that the rally Sunday was not very different from those organized by Putin's successful campaign for the March 4 presidential election. Participants were bused in from the Moscow region and some parts of central Russia. Lines of buses could be seen parked along the Moscow River embankment as far as the eye could see.
"It was very unwise of the patriarchate to call for this show of public support, as millions of people across the country who knew nothing of liberal media accusations against Patriarch Kirill now begin asking questions," said Mikhail Ardov, a priest associated with the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, which is independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. "The patriarch wanted to show how much he is worth and how influential he is, but the entire country saw that most of his parish consists of not-so-young women."