MOSCOW — The Rev. Aleksandr L. Ptitsyn did not pause even a fraction of a second when asked if Jesus would have forgiven the three young members of a feminist punk rock band — two of them the mothers of small children — who have been jailed since March and face up to seven years in prison for staging a guerrilla performance on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
“Of course he would,” the priest said. “No doubt.”
But Father Ptitsyn, who is the rector of the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Russian Orthodox parish closest to the courthouse where the members of the band, called Pussy Riot, are now on trial, was not so quick to offer forgiveness of his own. Instead, retelling the story of St. George, who reputedly killed an evil dragon even after taming it, Father Ptitsyn made a forceful case for punishing the three women whom he described as paid agents of the West. “The gist of this parable is that evil unpunished is the same as evil encouraged,” Father Ptitsyn said, sitting in the gated courtyard of his church, which was built in the mid-1600s.
And yet, he could not help but fall back on a message of mercy. “I think the time they spent in prison is quite enough,” he said, waving a huge hand in front of his blond-bearded face. “They were there with criminals, drug addicts. They have seen the other side of life. I feel compassion for them. I would give them a suspended sentence of, say, two years, provided they don’t do anything like that again.”
Until Thursday evening, the Kremlin so far had shown no such pity, seizing on the case as an opportunity to link arms with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is an increasingly important political ally, and to use the growing religiosity in Russia in a bid to shore up public support.
But in London on Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin weighed in, telling reporters that while there was “nothing good” about the band members’ demonstration, “nonetheless, I do not think that they should be judged severely for this,” according to the Interfax news agency. Mr. Putin, who was in Britain to meet Prime Minister David Cameron and attend the Olympics, said the final decision must be made by the court. “I hope the court will make the correct, reasonable decision,” he said.
Conversations with parishioners at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross, an elegant, lettuce-green temple with a bell tower and onion dome, suggested that even many faithful churchgoers genuinely offended by the band’s “punk prayer” — in which members profanely beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin — and unwilling to shrug it off as a harmless political stunt, viewed the response by the Russian authorities as disproportionate.
Viktoriya Khodernkova, 34, a manager for the customs service, said that jail seemed too severe a punishment. “I think it should be something different,” she said, as the celestial melodies of the choir reverberated off the gilded icons on the walls and the fresco-covered ceilings and floated out into the church’s sun-drenched courtyard. “Some kind of public work; they can work in an orphanage or hospital,” she said. “Something for the good of society.”
Still, Ms. Khodernkova wanted her outrage noted. “It was an act of vandalism and extreme case of debauchery,” she said.
In recent months, the plight of the band’s activists, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23; Maria Alyokhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, has become an international sensation, with rights groups calling them prisoners of conscience and celebrities like Sting pleading for their release. That sentiment was repeated by Pete Townshend of the Who and other musicians in a letter published in The Times of London on Thursday and aimed to coincide with Mr. Putin’s arrival in Britain to meet with Mr. Cameron.
Although the formal charge against the young women is hooliganism — punishable by up to seven years in prison because they acted as a group — they have been accused in court of Satanism, inciting religious hatred and causing “moral harm” to at least 10 churchgoers. “They spit into my soul and into the soul of my God,” Tatyana Anosova, who sells candles at the cathedral, testified this week. “My soul still hurts, but I cannot show my soul.”
The diminutive, girlish defendants have been treated as dangerous criminals, led in and out each day in handcuffs and forced to sit, like defendants in virtually all Russian criminal trials, in a glass enclosure or a cage depending on the courtroom. While court employees and journalists were briefly evacuated after a bomb threat on Thursday morning, the defendants said they were never taken from the building.
Critics of the Russian government say that the women’s real crime was not offending God or the Orthodox Church, but the country’s true higher power — Mr. Putin — and that turning the other cheek is typically not his way of doing business.
“I think that had it not been a politically motivated act, they would not have been treated so severely,” said a parishioner who would give only her first name, Vera, and who said she worked in the logistics section of a private company. “So many awful things go unpunished in our country.”
Like other women at the church, Vera, 32, covered her head with a scarf — in her case pale green, matching her eyes. She said that political action in the cathedral was wrong. “I think it was not necessary to go to a church and desecrate it,” she said. “I am categorically against the existing regime, and I attend rallies and go to demonstrations.”
Lilya Malkova, 26, a lawyer, a white kerchief over her head as a blazing summer sun beat down, said she believed that the prosecution was being directed by higher-ups in the government. “The girls did nothing horrible,” Ms. Malkova said. “If we follow God’s commandments, we should forgive the girls.” She added, “But they will not be forgiven. This is all politics, and these days politics are above God’s commandments.”
Mr. Putin, in his comments in London, said the Russian church had already shown itself to be more compassionate than other faiths in its response to the band, echoing a view expressed by church officials. Mr. Putin said that had the band caused offense in Israel, it would have had trouble leaving the country, and that worse would have happened had it insulted Islam in the predominantly Muslim Caucasus. “We would not even have time to take them under protection,” he said.
Still, there are many people who want the band members punished, in some cases severely.
“They should be in prison,” declared Zhenya Nikolayeva, who works at an investment company and, at 23 years old, is about the same age as the defendants. “For me the church is a sacred place,” Ms. Nikolayeva said, as she left the morning service at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. “If they have their own ideas about life they want to express, they should have found another place.”
“They meant to offend, and they wanted fame,” she added. “I want them to be in prison.”
Yelena N. Yudova, 56, a pensioner who lives near the church, said a harsh punishment was appropriate. “In my opinion, this is pure Satanism,” she said. “They could do what they did in any other place, but they came to the temple.”
Andrew Roth, Nikolay Khalip and Anna Tikhomirova contributed reporting.