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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian feminists expressed outrage Wednesday after the country's Orthodox Church proposed women dress more modestly and refrain from walking down the street "painted like a clown."
Endorsed by Russia's leaders as the country's main faith, the Orthodox Church has grown increasingly powerful since communism fell and its dominance has drawn criticism from rights groups who say it undermines Russia's secular constitution.
"We should create an all-Russian dress code," top Church official Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said in a letter published by Interfax news agency Tuesday.
"Either scantily clad or painted like a clown, a woman who counts on meeting men on the street, in the metro or a bar not only risks running into a drunken idiot but will meet men with no self-respect," he said.
Chaplin, who also heads the Church's department for relations with society, said last month that women in mini-skirts were to blame if raped as they "provoke men."
His statements, which Russian media widely condemned on Wednesday, are particularly out of place in a country where many women pride themselves on their intense grooming, revealing blouses and year-round love of heels.
"The Kremlin has given the Church carte blanche to lead their own ideological campaigns," renowned Russian feminist and writer Maria Arbatova told Reuters.
"Disastrously, this includes waging a war on women's rights, and this dress-code is just the icing on the cake," she said, adding that the trend began with the Church's anti-abortion campaign. The Church's call last June for tougher rules to reduce the number of abortions carried out in Russia -- which registers around 1.5 million a year -- was met with sharp criticism from feminists who said the move was against women's rights.
Russian group "For Feminism" said on their website here Wednesday that they had collected 1,738 signatures in their petition against the dress-code, which they will send to Patriarch Kirill.
The dress-code proposal won praise Wednesday from the hardline leader of Muslim Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, whom analysts accuse of leading a radical Islamic revival which has included the harassment of women for not wearing headscarves.
The trend toward consolidation of the Church as a national force has worried Russia's 20 million Muslims -- one seventh of the population -- as well as those who believe church and state should be strictly separated.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman