MOSCOW -- Russia's top Orthodox clerics Saturday asked for mercy for the punk band Pussy Riot for its anti-government protest in a Moscow cathedral. The church's forgiveness, however, 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 at the heart of Russia's national identity.
The case, which ended Friday with the three band members' conviction for hooliganism and sentence to 2 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, widely believed to be President Vladimir Putin's spiritual counselor, said on state television Saturday 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.
Both clerics supported the court's decision to prosecute the band, 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.