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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two Russian curators were found guilty on Monday of inciting religious hatred in a case that has highlighted the growing influence of the church and its links to the Russian government.
Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev were showered with roses by supporters as a Moscow court cleared them of a maximum jail sentence of three years for their 2007 Forbidden Art exhibit, which mixed religious icons with sexual and pop-culture images.
They must instead pay fines of 200,000 roubles ($6,477) and 150,000 roubles, respectively, to the state. Leading cultural figures had appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev to drop the charges, saying it heralded a new era of censorship.
"I am certain that this decision comes directly from Prime Minister (Vladimir Putin) and President (Medvedev)," Yerofeyev told Reuters when leaving the courtroom to chants and prayers from elderly women.
Outside, men clad in black leather jackets raised icons and crosses and two priests looked on in silence as Samodurov and Yerofeyev, a prominent intellectual who once curated Moscow's state-run Tretyakov Gallery, emerged from the courtroom.
Russia's Orthodox Church is undergoing a major revival after the fall of Communism almost 20 years ago and Russia's leaders have endorsed it as the country's main faith.
The trend has worried Russia's 20-million strong Muslim population as well as those who believe that church and state should be strictly separated.
Among the art on display in the 2007 exhibit were works depicting an Orthodox icon adorned with Mickey Mouse, a Russian general raping a soldier, and a Soviet-era Order of Lenin medal over Christ's head.
As the court prepared to hear the verdict, radical Russian artist Pyotr Verzilov stormed the courtroom, lambasting authorities and letting out dozens of cockroaches from a bag.
Mikhail Nalimov, head of the United Orthodox Youth movement, told reporters in court the curators should be sent into exile.
The works from the exhibit were placed behind a peep-holed veil so only those who wanted to could view them, and photography was banned to prevent the imagery from being broadly distributed.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Maria Golovnina