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Pussy Riot supporters protest at Russian cathedral as global campaign heats up

Yevgeny Feldman / AFP - Getty Images

Supporters of Pussy Riot hold individual letters that spell the phrase "Blessed are the merciful" outside the Church of Christ the Savior in central Moscow on Wednesday.

MOSCOW -- Security guards scuffled with masked protesters who demonstrated outside Moscow's main cathedral on Wednesday in support of three members of Pussy Riot, as a wave of global support for the Russian punk rockers gained speed.

Witnesses said 18 demonstrators in colorful balaclavas -- similar to those worn by the band members when they staged an irreverent protest at the same church -- mounted the steps of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and held up black cards with white letters spelling out the phrase, "Blessed are the merciful."


Guards moved swiftly to disperse the demonstrators and treated some of them roughly, Internet TV channel Dozhd reported. Pussy Riot supporters said on social media that at least two people had been detained.

A Moscow court is to issue a verdict on Friday following the trial of the three women who sang a "punk prayer" on the altar of Christ the Savior -- Moscow's main cathedral -- in February, calling on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin, then prime minister and now president.

Prosecutors want the judge to convict Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentence each to three years in prison.

Putin has said the women should not be judged too harshly, but he risks appearing weak if they walk free.

Winning over hearts abroad
Since their arrests, the women have been vilified by the Russian state media -- while winning over hearts abroad.

Supporters of the band will mobilize this week in at least a two dozen cities worldwide to hold simultaneous demonstrations an hour before the court issues its verdict.

Russia's Pussy Riot: Unmasked and on trial

Calls for the women to be freed have come from a long list of celebrities such as Madonna and Bjork. Protests have been held in a number of Western capitals, including Berlin, where last week about 400 people joined Canadian electro-pop performance artist Peaches to support the band.

Three female punk rockers are put on trial in Russia after taking over the pulpit at an Orthodox cathedral and performing a controversial song criticizing President Putin. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

In one of the most extravagant displays, Reykjavik Mayor Jon Gnarr rode through the streets of the Icelandic capital in a Gay Pride parade this weekend dressed like a band member -- wearing a bright pink dress and matching balaclava -- while lip-synching to one of Pussy Riot's songs.

PhotoBlog: Pussy Riot fans wear balaclavas to rally behind band

Amnesty International has called the women prisoners of conscience and begun collecting signatures by text message for a petition to be sent to the Russian government, while the U.S. State Department has repeatedly expressed its concern.

Madonna donned a balaclava during a concert in Moscow last week and had "Pussy Riot" written on her bare back. Yoko Ono sent a personal message to Samutsevich, saying that "the power of your every word is now growing in us."

Pop star Madonna has joined the chorus of criticism over the trial of a Russian women's punk band accused of religious hatred. The three women face years in jail after mounting a protest against Vladimir Putin on the altar of the country's main cathedral. It's part of a widening government crackdown on dissent. ITV's Paul Davies reports.

A group of leading British musicians, including Pete Townshend of the Who and members of the Pet Shop Boys, published a letter in The Times of London ahead of Putin's visit during the Olympics to urge him to give the Pussy Riot members a fair hearing.

On Friday, activists in more than a dozen cities, from Moscow to Toronto, are expected to take to the streets at 2 p.m. Moscow time (4 a.m. ET), an hour before the judge is to issue the verdict. The protests are being coordinated by the defense lawyers.

Venues vary from the square outside the ornate Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to the yard outside the Russian Embassy in London.

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In Paris, the protest will be held on Stravinsky Square and led by 29-year-old Alexey Prokopyev from Russie-Libertés, a Paris-based organization formed in December to bring together Russians studying or working in France.

"Most people go to these rallies in Paris because we cannot be in Russia at the moment for various reasons -- because of jobs, classes," said Prokopyev, who was born in the Soviet Union and has spent most of the past 17 years in France. "We all wish we were in Moscow now, but since we can't we do it in Paris."

Russie-Libertés also is helping to organize rallies in Marseille, Nice, Lyons and Montpellier.

From March 2012: Anti-Putin activists pay high price, but refuse to back down

Prokopyev said that he and his peers "want Russia to be a normal country" and be able to elect a president "who doesn't make the country where we were born a laughingstock."

In New York, Friday's protest will take place outside the Russian Consulate and later on Times Square.

"It's absurd that this case is being treated as criminal, while in any other civilized country that would be merely an administrative offense," said Xenia Grubstein, a 31-year-old journalist helping to organize the New York protest.

'Serious problems' with vote that kept Putin in power, monitors say

A protest is also planned in Washington, where last month punk rockers and arts activists rallied outside the Russian Embassy.

'Putin's Russia'
In France, Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti last week issued a statement expressing concern that artistic freedom was on trial.

Complete international news coverage on NBCNews.com

A German cross-party group of lawmakers sent a letter to the Russian ambassador calling the five months the band members have spent in custody and the possible prison terms "draconian and disproportionate" punishment.

The international press has been full of critical reports from the trial. One of Germany's most influential magazines, Der Spiegel, featured the band on its cover: a picture of Tolokonnikova behind bars and the headline "Putin's Russia."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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