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Russian Court Convicts Two for Controversial Art Exhibit

A Russian court found the organizers of a controversial art exhibit guilty of inciting religious hatred, following a complaint by members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Human-rights groups say the case underscores the growing influence of the church in Russian society.

Former art museum director Yuri Samodurov and a former curator Andrei Yerofeyev were fined more than $11,000 for organizing a 2007 exhibit called "Forbidden Art." The title refers to the fact the work on display had been banned from other galleries the year before.

The artwork was hidden behind walls at the Sakharov Museum and viewable only through peepholes. Among the more controversial items was a piece showing Mickey Mouse as Jesus Christ, an image of the Virgin Mary made out of caviar, and another of a Russian army general raping a soldier.

An ultra-conservative Russian Orthodox group called the People's Council filed a lawsuit claiming the exhibit was aimed at inciting religious and ethnic hatred.

A spokesman for the group, Oleg Kassin, tells VOA that the exhibit was a provocation.

He said if artists want to depict such things, they should do it at home. He says once this type of display is put on in public, it turns into a criminal offense.

In a 2007 letter, the museum director, Samodurov, defended the Forbidden Art exhibit against Christian criticism, saying it was not meant to invoke hatred, but to start a discussion on censorship in Russia. He also said one the important objectives of the Sakharov Museum should be to defend the separation of church and state.

Evgeny Ihlov of the Russian group called For Human Rights says the ensuing trial demonstrated the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

He says the church got what it wanted, which was the right to use state power for censorship of things the church does not approve.

But some in the Russian Orthodox Church urged restraint in prosecuting the two men, who could have faced up to three years in prison for the conviction.

Ihlov says some church officials feared that if they had gone to jail, they would have become martyrs for their cause.

He says the church is afraid that a harsh verdict would have caused hatred among intellectuals in the country and would have turned many more people against the church.

Samodurov has been at the center of religious controversy before. In 2005, he was convicted of inciting religious hatred and fined for another exhibit called "Caution, Religion!", which was vandalized by church extremists.