MOSCOW — Russia is abuzz with talk of the Orthodox Church's wealth and its close links to the Kremlin after an expensive watch was seemingly airbrushed from the wrist of the church's patriarch in a website picture.
Bloggers earlier this week spotted the photo of Patriarch Kirill on the church's website, but by Thursday it appeared editors had doctored the image, erasing the watch but failing to get rid of its reflection.
Reacting to public indignation, the patriarch's office promptly apologized for "a mistake" of an employee and promised "severe punishment" for the culprit.
Prominent Orthodox followers have lambasted the church for the incident, including anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny who said it was "shameful." Many others have questioned if it was appropriate for a man of cloth to own such expensive things.
A number of bloggers on Friday, however, had started spreading identical messages of support for Kirill, with his photo and a caption, saying: "We love you, Patriarch Kirill!"
Rumors about Kirill's timepiece first surfaced in 2009 when a photo by a Ukrainian journalist clearly showed the watch and its make — a Breguet, which retails for around $30,000.
Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyev said the patriarch had told him recently that he owns a Breguet that was a gift, but that he never wears it, opting for an inexpensive Russian watch.
The church has experienced an unprecedented revival in Russia since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union in 1991. Although church and state are separate under the constitution, the church has claimed a leading role in setting moral guidelines for society. But, until recently, it rarely caused such strong outbursts of anti-clerical sentiment.
In March the church came in for criticism when a Moscow court ordered three female punk rockers to remain in jail until late April for staging a "punk prayer" to deliver the nation from Vladimir Putin — then prime minister, soon to again be president — in a surprise performance in the country's main Orthodox cathedral.
The church described the performance as "blasphemous," but did not speak against incarceration of the women, two of whom are mothers. Thousands of believers signed a petition urging the church to forgive the band.
In an apparent reference to the petitioners, Kirill said last week that his "heart breaks" to hear that some Orthodox people condone the "blasphemy."