MOSCOW: The trial of feminist punk rockers who chanted a "punk prayer" against President Vladimir Putin from a pulpit inside Russia's largest cathedral started in Moscow on Friday amid controversy over the prank that divided devout believers, Kremlin critics and ordinary Russians.
Five members of Pussy Riot — wearing brightly colored homemade ski masks and miniskirts — briefly seized one of the pulpits of Moscow's main Orthodox church, the Christ the Savior Cathedral, in February and chanted "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." A video of the performance posted on the Internet shows astonished churchgoers as the women chant, high-kick and dance, and then appear to bow and bless themselves as security arrives to remove them.
Three band members — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 — were arrested and face up to seven years in jail on hooliganism charges.
Their trial begins Friday in Moscow's Khamovniki district court. The court building was surrounded by dozens of riot policemen, along with the band's supporters and critics.
Their cause and the Russian Orthodox Church's harsh response have provoked public outcry and deeply polarized Russia.
The church says the women deserve to be prosecuted for their "blasphemous" performance from a place near the altar that no lay people are allowed to enter, although thousands of believers have signed a petition urging the church to forgive the band.
Pussy Riot gained notoriety in January for performing a song titled "Putin Chickens Out" from a spot on Red Square used in czarist Russia for announcing government decrees. Videos of their performances became instant Internet hits.
The band's "punk prayer" took place two weeks before March's presidential vote. Putin won a third presidential term despite a wave of massive protests against his rule.
Attorneys for the band members argued that they should be released because they have young children.
Although church and state are separate under Russia's constitution, the Russian Orthodox Church has claimed a leading role in setting moral guidelines for society. Its growing prominence has caused concern among followers of minority faiths and nonreligious Russians.