MOSCOW -- The skinny dissident is thrown headfirst into a police van by camouflage-clad officers. Nearby, a dozen bearded men bearing Russian Orthodox crosses and wearing skull-and-crossbones T-shirts cheer on the cops.

It's the latest flare-up in a growing feud pitting supporters of the influential church, which sees itself as the nation's spiritual guide, against opponents who say the church has sold out to Vladimir Putin – becoming an arm of his regime more interested in gold than souls.

Roman Dobrokhotov was on his way to Christ the Savior Cathedral, Russia's biggest church, to protest against the arrest of members of female punk rock band Pussy Riot. They were jailed in early March for belting out an anti-Putin "punk prayer" in front of the church's gilded altar wearing garishly colored balaclavas.

The church's leader, Patriarch Kirill, cried blasphemy. Critics claimed church-state collusion was keeping the women locked up.

Many say Putin, who returned to the presidency last week, has used the church as a potent tool in his command structure, allowing it to amass vast riches in return for unquestioning support of his policies and spiritual blessing for his leadership.

For more than a millennium, the church helped cement Russia's identity and culture in times of foreign invasions and political upheaval – and that legacy remains strong in the hearts of millions of Russians.

Under the atheist Soviet regime, the church suffered persecution, with tens of thousands of its faithful purged, jailed or executed. The 1991 fall of communism opened the way for a renaissance that many celebrated as bringing Russia back to its spiritual roots.

But resentment slowly grew over the perception that church leaders were becoming Kremlin stooges.

Critics said slathering gold-leaf on church domes was ostentation shameful for a country suffering through the hard times of the Boris Yeltsin years. The church has acknowledged that it ran businesses dealing in alcohol, tobacco and oil, and operated jewelry stores and organic farms, to raise money for restoration of churches and monasteries and education of priests.

Suspicions grew further under Putin.

The church's backing for the Kremlin became so fawning that it consecrated new nuclear missiles as "Russia's guardian angels" and urged young Russians to volunteer for military service in Chechnya. Shortly before the Pussy Riot escapade, Kirill met with Putin and praised his two presidential terms as "God's miracle." In return, Putin said that "the state still owes much to the Church."

The band said it performed its "punk prayer" inside the cathedral on Feb. 21 to protest Putin's return to the Kremlin. They thrashed their heads and shouted: "Mother of God, Drive Putin Away!"

Three members were charged with hooliganism and face up to seven years in jail – severe even by the standards of a government notorious for crackdowns on dissent.

Protesters see Kirill's influence in the harsh treatment. The bearded patriarch in a recent sermon described the punk performance as "devilish mockery" and part of a broader assault by "enemy forces" on the church.

The church maintains that desecration of icons and other acts of vandalism have become more frequent since the punk protest. As the patriarch led a procession around the cathedral, priests carried a crucifix and an icon that had been damaged in attacks elsewhere in Russia this spring.

Kirill himself is a focus of the growing opposition to the church.

The patriarch's reputation has been tarnished by a pair of scandals involving a (EURO)30,000 ($38,832) Breguet watch he was seen wearing and a court case in which he sought 20 million rubles ($630,000) from a cancer-stricken neighbor – despite his monastic vows not to have any worldly possessions while serving the church.

And just as Putin is supported by gangs of youth thugs who intimidate his opponents, the church enjoys the backing of its own roaming enforcers of orthodoxy – tacitly approved of by church leaders. The bearded men who cheered Dobrokhotov's arrest were members of the Orthodox Banner Bearers, a group that combines ultraconservative piety with bellicose acts reminiscent of extreme-right intimidation. They have gained notoriety for attacking gay rallies, tearing pop singer Madonna's portrait, burning Harry Potter books and running a stake through a toy monkey to protest the teaching of Darwinism in schools.

The church gave its leader Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich one of the church's highest awards, the medal of St. Sergius of Radonezh.

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said the church has turned into the Kremlin's "Salvation Ministry," obediently approving Kremlin policies and slamming Western democracy as concepts alien to Russian traditions – all the while enjoying hefty government donations and tax immunity.

"The Church inherited its full loyalty to the existing government from Soviet times," Belkovsky said.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, the Church was a state institution whose government-paid clerics reported to czars as their "ultimate judges." In the Soviet era, Orthodox leaders infamously declared their loyalty to the atheist regime to allow the church to keep operating – and were enlisted as KGB agents, according to lawmakers and prominent human rights advocates.

"We knew back in the early 1990s that 90 percent of church leaders had been KGB agents," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the respected For Human Rights group and a former lawmaker who in the early 1990s chaired a parliamentary commission that investigated Soviet-era ties between the church and KGB.

Despite the growing criticism over perceived sins past and present, there's no questioning the church's influence over Russian society.

The church claims 100 million Russians in its flock – more than three-quarters of the nation's population – though polls suggest that less than 5 percent of them are devout churchgoers. More than a spiritual guide, many Russians look to the church as a symbol of their identity.

Some believers applaud the Pussy Riot arrest.

"It's very good that they were jailed, because otherwise some fanatics would simply tear them apart," said Natalya Dolina, a 55-year-old historian and churchgoer from Moscow. "They soiled a church; they fouled icons that are dear to many. They are devoid of talent; they just latch onto a trend."

But believers such as Lidya Moniava, who manages children's hospices at a charity fund in Moscow, asked Kirill in a web-posted plea to forgive the pranksters and facilitate their release – and thousands joined her petition.

A Church spokesman said, however, that the Church will forgive the punk rockers only if they "repent and change their lives."

Several Orthodox priests declined to be interviewed for this story, saying they feared reprimands or were not allowed contact with a non-Russian news agency.

Many non-religious Russians found the prank tactless, but were shocked by the arrest and possible punishment.

"They should have gotten those girls out of the church – and left it at that," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Russia's most prominent human rights activist who considers herself non-practicing Orthodox.

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  • Punk Band Pussy Riot Plays In Cathedral

  • Opposition Activist Detained

    Police officers detain an opposition activist near the Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Sunday, April 29, 2012. Opposition activists planned to pray to Holy Mother to deliver Russia from Vladimir Putin. They planned to repeat the "punk prayer" by five members of the feminist band Pussy Riot briefly who seized the pulpit of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February and chanted "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." Three band members have been arrested and now face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

  • Orthodox Militant Group

    Members of an Orthodox militant group stand in line in front of the Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral to prevent access of opposition activists to the Cathedral in Moscow, Sunday, April 29, 2012. Opposition activists planned to pray to Holy Mother to deliver Russia from Vladimir Putin. They planned to repeat the "punk prayer" by five members of the feminist band Pussy Riot briefly who seized the pulpit of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February and chanted "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." Three band members have been arrested and now face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

  • Activist Stands Off With Militants

    An opposition activist with her child stands in front of Orthodox militant group members standing in line in front of the Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral to prevent access of opposition to the Cathedral in Moscow, Sunday, April 29, 2012. Opposition activists planned to pray to Holy Mother to deliver Russia from Vladimir Putin. They planned to repeat the "punk prayer" by five members of the feminist band Pussy Riot briefly who seized the pulpit of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February and chanted "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." Three band members have been arrested and now face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

  • Supporters Of Band Detained

    Police detain supporters of Pussy Riot outside a court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 19, 2012. Five members of the band Pussy Riot briefly seized the pulpit of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February to chant "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." Moscow court is set to consider extending the detention of three female punk rockers arrested after a surprise protest performance inside the country's main Orthodox cathedral. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

  • Member Of Women's Punk Band

    Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot is escorted to a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 19, 2012. Five members of the band Pussy Riot briefly seized the pulpit of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February to chant "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." Moscow court is set to consider extending the detention of three female punk rockers arrested after a surprise protest performance inside the country's main Orthodox cathedral. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

  • Supporters Of Pussy Riot Detained

    Police detain supporters of Pussy Riot outside a court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 19, 2012. Five members of the band Pussy Riot briefly seized the pulpit of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February to chant "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." Moscow court is set to consider extending the detention of three female punk rockers arrested after a surprise protest performance inside the country's main Orthodox cathedral. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

  • Protester In Chains

    Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot is escorted to a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 19, 2012. Five members of the band Pussy Riot briefly seized the pulpit of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February to chant "Mother Mary, drive Putin away." Moscow court is set to consider extending the detention of three female punk rockers arrested after a surprise protest performance inside the country's main Orthodox cathedral. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

  • Sign Supports Protest Band

    A police officer walks outside a bus before it departs for a city tour supporting the female punk protest group Pussy Riot with a poster of the band on the window of the bus in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 31, 2012. Three Pussy Riot members are currently imprisoned and awaiting trial on hooliganism charges, after they performed wearing bright-colored homemade ski masks, inside Moscow's historic Christ the Savior Cathedral in late February and belted out a protest song against church leaders' support for then-presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

  • Supporter Protests Police HQ

    A supporter of a female Russian punk band holds a photo band while he and others picket the police headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 8, 2012. Supporters of a female Russian punk band have picketed police headquarters in Moscow to protest the group's jailing for trying to mount an impromptu concert inside the city's main cathedral. The band, whose performers wear bright-colored homemade ski masks, entered Moscow's historic Christ the Savior Cathedral in late February and belted out a protest song against church leaders' support for then-presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. Putin won the elections in a widely criticized vote Sunday. Pussy Riot gained notoriety in January for performing a song addressed to Putin from a spot on Red Square. Videos of the performance became an instant Internet hit. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

  • Feminist Band Pussy Riot

    Members of the Russian radical feminist group Pussy Riot give an interview to the Associated Press in a break during their rehearsal in Moscow, Friday, Feb., 17, 2012. Members of the group stage performances against the policies conducted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)