MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Orthodox Church has allowed its clergy to enter politics in certain cases, in the latest sign of its growing presence in Russia's secular society.
Endorsed by Kremlin leaders as Russia's main faith, the Church has grown increasingly powerful since communism fell two decades ago. Its role has drawn criticism from human rights groups who say it undermines Russia's constitution.
On Thursday, President Dmitry Medvedev backed a decision by the Church to allow clergy to enter politics in certain cases.
"The Russian Orthodox church is the largest and the most respected social institution in the modern Russia," Medvedev told top clergy visiting the Kremlin.
The Church, which made the announcement on Wednesday, said it had made some exceptions allowing clergy to enter the political arena in cases where the Church encounters hostility from other faiths and factions. It did not elaborate.
"Exceptions to this rule can be made only in a case when the election (to government) of clergy ... arises from the need to counteract forces...," a statement posted on Patriarch Kirill's official website mospatriarchia.ru said.
Although Russia officially separates church from state, Medvedev said the two should work more closely.
"In order to strengthen social stability today ...(the state and the Church), probably like never before, need to act together," he said.
The consolidation and dominance of the Church is criticized by human rights campaigners who say its power is encroaching on Russia's separation between religion and state and the country's large Muslim minority says it feels excluded.
Russia is home to around 20 million Muslims, around half of whom live in the volatile North Caucasus, where an Islamist insurgency is bubbling.
December saw the worst ethnic tensions in the capital since the fall of the Soviet Union, when 7,000 soccer fans and neo-nationalists gathered near Red Square and attacked passersby who appeared to be non-Slavic.
The clashes raised questions over Russia's ability to host the World Cup in 2018.
The Church's activities in society have surged in recent months. It launched its own YouTube channel as it seeks to lure youths to the faith, and it sparked ire from feminists in January when it said Russian women should dress more modestly.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Maria Golovnina