Moscow - Church bells rang across Moscow on Sunday as tens of thousands of faithful prayed at the main cathedral for the "correction" of feminist punks who face seven-year jail terms for singing before its altar.
The balaclava and miniskirt-clad members of the protest group Pussy Riot burst into the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February and belted out verses of a song denouncing the Church's open support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ahead of his successful quest to win a presidential election.
The incident received little attention at first and several members of the group and reporters covering the episode were briefly detained before being freed. Three of the band members were re-arrested the following month and they have since remained in custody ahead of a trial on hooliganism charges.
But the Church soon turned it into a rallying call and other Putin backers joined ranks as they sought to build a movement capable of standing up to the protests that preceded the ex-KGB agent's election to a third term.
Patriarch Kirill held a Sunday morning prayer at the cathedral before leading a precession of crosses and icons "defiled" by the band into a sea of what the city said was 65 000 Orthodox faithful.
The patriarch warned that Russia was facing a "fateful moment" in history as women in colourful head scarfs wiped away tears under the blue spring sky.
He denounced Pussy Riot's actions as "blasphemy" and "a mockery" while voicing frustration that some were treating the incident as the "legal expression of human freedom".
"We come here to pray for our Fatherland, for our people and for our youth - for God to keep it from the Devil's temptations," the patriarch said with emotion in his voice.
"We are not threatening anyone and we are not demonstrating our force.
"But no one can stop us in this fateful moment in history - and today we are experiencing just such a moment - from gathering for prayer."
The Church issued a separate statement saying prayers should be read for "the correction of the defilers of holy shrines and the good name of the Church".
Massive screens set up outside the cathedral meanwhile featured various celebrities calling on Russians to unite in Orthodox faith.
"When Communism disappeared, the last stronghold of Russia's genetic code - its key - became Orthodoxy," Oscar-winning film maker Nikita Mikhalkov said in the film.
The event underscores the increasingly-powerful Church's ability to bring massive numbers out on the streets amid lingering tensions over Putin's return to the Kremlin after 12 years in power as both president and premier.
The Pussy Riot performance began a series of scandals for the Church in recent weeks that included an embarrassing incident in which its press office admitted to doctoring a photo to erase the patriarch's $40 000 watch.
Many of the gathered came in marching under tsarist-era flags representing nationalist forces and the various youth groups.
"We came because the Church needs our protection," said a 30-year-old space industry reporter named Dmitry.
"We came to show that there are more of those who condemn the desecration of relics than those who defend it."
Similar events were staged in other major cities and the patriarch referred to "hundreds and hundreds of thousands" of Russians joining their voices Sunday in prayer.
Interfax reported that more than 20 000 had joined a mass event in the southern city of Krasnodar alone.
Police said the event passed without any arrests or stand-offs between the faithful and Pussy Riot's most fervent supporters.
Nearly 30 Pussy Riot fans were booked on Thursday after rallying outside a Moscow court house that extended the pretrial detention of three group members to late June.