Sacrilege one of them scrawled on the wall the police

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''Sacrilege,'' one of them scrawled on the wall. - The police came and quickly arrested the men, but their actions -- described either as heroism or hooliganism -- began a highly charged debate not only over the state of freedom of expression in Russia today but also over the ever-growing influence of the Orthodox Church. - Priests denounced the museum -- named after the Soviet-era physicist and dissident Andrei D. Sakharov. Church members began a letter-writing campaign defending the attackers. - Somewhere along the way, the tables turned on the museum, its director and the exhibition's artists. The lower house of Parliament passed a resolution condemning the museum and the exhibition's organizers. - The criminal charges against four of the six men were dropped early on for lack of evidence -- even though they had been detained inside the building. Then on Aug. 11, with several hundred Orthodox believers holding a vigil outside, a court here threw out the charges against the others, Mikhail Lyukshin and Anatoly Zyakin, saying they had been unlawfully prosecuted. - The court made it clear that an investigation should continue -- not against those who attacked the exhibit, but against the museum itself. - ''The museum is now the enemy of the people,'' said its director, Yuri V. Samodurov. - The furor over the exhibition has thrust into opposition two groups that had suffered together during seven decades of state ideology and
atheism. In the 12 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, both artists and religious believers have flourished in a new Russia. In this case, though, each side accuses the other of exploiting Russia's new freedom to infringe on its rights. - ''This freedom opened the gates so that thick streams of dirt are flooding all around,'' the Rev. Aleksandr Shargunov, one of the church's most outspoken conservatives, said of the post-Soviet society. ''The church is a very narrow stream of clean water.'' - The men who attacked the exhibit are members of his church in Moscow, St. Nikolai in Pyzhi. Some of them work there, and Father Aleksandr organized the campaign for their defense and against the museum. He compared the exhibition to a rape or a terrorist act. - ''For a believer,'' he said, ''this sacrilege is equivalent to the destruction of a church, which is what happened in the near past in Russia.'' - The museum, dedicated to Mr. Sakharov's legacy, regularly presents exhibitions intended to cause debate, including subjects like the Soviet legacy, human rights and the war in Chechnya. Never before has one provoked such an outcry. - The exhibition's works all addressed religion, but Mr. Samodurov said the theme was not antireligious as much as anticlerical. Some of the artists themselves are Orthodox believers, he said, and the exhibition was not meant to offend. - One sculpture, by Alina Gurevich, that offended nonetheless depicted a church made of vodka bottles, a pointed reference to the tax exemption the church received in the 1990's to sell alcohol.

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