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MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian Orthodox Church has established rules for priests seeking elective office despite a ban on almost all political activity by religious in a country that considers itself secular, a church representative was quoted as saying on Friday.
Analysts said Russia's biggest and most influential religious organization, whose leader has portrayed a protest by punk band Pussy Riot in a cathedral as part of an attack on the church, is seeking to increase its influence on public life.
Rights activists said it could blur the lines between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church, which have a long tradition of close ties that critics say are tightening again despite the constitution saying Russia is a secular state.
At a meeting on Thursday, the church's Holy Synod reaffirmed rules set last year allowing priests to contest elections in cases when "schismatic" forces, or those of another faith, are seeking to use elective office to fight against the church.
Such a case could arise, for example, if "a political force declares that it is running in elections and that one of its aims is to fight Orthodoxy and the Russian church", Vladimir Legoida, a church spokesman, said in comments posted on the Internet.
Those rules are not new, Legoida said, but the church also set out "a clear mechanism" for priests or other church representatives who believe they should run for office or a legislative seat.
They must apply to the church leadership for permission, explaining their reasoning, he said.
Priests are still barred from joining political parties, even if they run in elections, Legoida said, and he said such had been tightened.
Despite the restrictions, the move indicates that "the church ... wants more involvement in politics," said Ksenia Sergazina of the Sova think-tank.
She said another example was legislation submitted to parliament last month that could set jail terms of up to three years for offending the religious sensitivities of the faithful.
The move seems follows closely the furor over the Pussy Riot rock band, three of whose members were sentenced to prison in August for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in a trial criticized in the West and by Kremlin opponents.
The band members burst into Moscow's main cathedral last February to sing a "punk prayer" urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin, who was campaigning for the presidency and had been praised by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
Kirill has said Pussy Riot's protest was part of a concerted attack by foes seeking to undermine traditional Russian values and halt the revival the church has experienced since the collapse of the communist Soviet Union in 1991.
Interfax news agency quoted Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a prominent human rights activist, as saying priests running in elections would be "another step in the direction of the clericalization of our system".
"All these steps mean that the Russian Orthodox Church is becoming a state religion," she was quoted as saying.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Michael Roddy