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Russian art or religious hatred?

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On orders from Russia's parliament, Moscow prosecutors are probing a question that could create new limits on free speech: When does artistic expression cross the line into criminality?

A group of artists are being charged with "inciting religious hatred" for lampooning religious ideology in a controversial exhibit. For the defendants, who face up to five years in prison if convicted, official reaction to the "Caution: Religion" show, held at Moscow's Andrei Sakharov Museum last year, suggests the return of Soviet-style control - where dissent is quashed and policemen stand in for art critics. In place of the former Communist Party, they say, the Russian Orthodox Church is fast becoming the Kremlin's chief guardian of ideological purity.

The church, backed by conservative politicians, says the case is about protecting the sensibilities of religious believers from deliberate mockery in the public arena. "Any provocation that insults the feelings of the faithful and stirs up religious discord must be classified as a crime," said Metropolitan Kirill, chair of the church's department of external relations, said in an official statement.

"I had no idea what I was starting when I authorized that exhibition," says Yuri Samodurov, the museum's director and lead defendant in the case. "But I'm grateful, in a way, because it's made me aware of what's really developing in this society. And it is scaring me."

The trial of Mr. Samodurov and two artists, Lyudmilla Vasilovskaya and Anna Mikhalchuk, opened in last month. The official charge sheet declared that the defendants entered "into a conspiracy with the intent to inflict humiliation and offense upon the Christian faith as a whole and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular."

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