When the well-known Sakharov Museum broached the subject of religion in an art exhibit, no one was surprised that an outcry followed.

After all, one work featured an icon into which viewers could insert their heads. Another superimposed Christ on a Coca-Cola logo with the words, "This Is My Blood."

Followers of a priest vandalized the exhibit with spray paint. The Russian parliament voted to condemn the display and urged the authorities to "take necessary measures." President Vladimir Putin's spiritual adviser, Archimandrate Tikhon Shevkunov, called the artists "disease-carrying bacteria" against whom "society is using antigens."

Ultimately, the power of the state was brought to bear against a museum that has stood as a symbol of challenge to Soviet-era repression and religious persecution. Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov is scheduled to go on trial Wednesday in a Moscow courtroom, accused with two other exhibit organizers of "inciting ethnic or religious hatred."

The case has attracted only a smattering of controversy in Russia, where an attack on the Orthodox Church is seen by many as a body blow to the Russian polity.

Stripped of its assets and persecuted for 70 years under atheist Soviet rule, the church of the Russian czars has once again become a key political player in Russia -- one of the few civil institutions able to claim a following across the nation's far-flung landscape.

In a survey this year, 71 percent of Russians identified themselves as Orthodox, and more than half said they considered their religion important or very important. The church sponsors a magazine and a radio station and until recently had a program on state television.

It indirectly controls at least 40 deputies in the parliament, who this week successfully carried a bill that will guarantee the church the free use of tens of millions of dollars' worth of state property on which church buildings stand.

Perhaps most important, the church has a believer in Putin, though his motives have been questioned. Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who was considered a poseur every time he clutched a candle and headed toward an altar for the TV cameras, Putin has his own Orthodox priest to whom he confesses.

The church leadership has backed the prosecution of the Sakharov Museum.

"Society should not tolerate open and provocative attempts to desecrate sacred objects and sacred names, and also to publicly challenge religious communities in a way which of course would provoke a negative reaction," Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy external relations director for the Moscow Patriarchate, said in an interview.

Archpriest Alexander Shargunov, whose followers launched the spray-paint attack against the January 2003 exhibit, went a step further.

"An unprecedented war is being launched against the church -- it is a war against the dignity of man," said Shargunov, an intense, soft-spoken man sporting the floor-length frock and a spindly version of the flowing beard of the classic Orthodox cleric. "We can say now that we are experiencing a transition from atheism to Satanism . . . and this may end in a situation where nothing holy will remain. And then the horrors of the gulag, of Nazi concentration camps and the Holocaust will look like trifles compared to the abyss of evil which will open."

Shargunov's church is filled with hundreds of followers on Sunday evenings. Supporters gather around him at the podium, clutching pocket tape recorders to capture his sermons and the haunting, almost off-key strains of his voice as he sings the ancient liturgy. Middle-aged women, their heads covered with scarves, kneel and kiss his hand as they pass through the church's rose-filled garden.

The Russian government, Shargunov said, doesn't go far enough in defending moral values.

"He may declare himself Christian, and he may be the first priest, but we should judge him not by the words, but by the deeds," he said when asked about Putin. "Can't he defend our children from the massive moral destruction of drugs? There are, according to official information, 2 [million] to 6 million homeless children in our country. Some of them even have parents. And the state is not doing anything for it. A typical headline you might see in the newspaper: 'Porno Star Is 9 Years Old.' Where is the Christian head of state?"

Under its constitution, Russia is a secular state, and the Orthodox Church has found itself trying to discover its proper role as a free and independent institution -- a role unprecedented in its 1,000-year history.

For at least 300 years before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the church was inextricably entwined with the rule of the czars. With the dawn of communism, churches were destroyed, and priests were imprisoned or executed. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the church, for the first time in its history, an independent player in a state that gave it no official mandate.

"How to behave? How to build relations among themselves, relations with the state? They were at a loss how to proceed," said Alexander Shipkov, an analyst on Russian religion and politics. Get-out-the-vote efforts on the part of the nation's 25,000 parishes -- a figure that has quadrupled since 1988 -- were credited by some with helping elect Putin in 2000.

But most -- including the church leadership -- see the church as much weaker than it might be, in part because Putin has skillfully undercut its authority even while capitalizing on its power as a unifying national institution.

Church officials say the government this year severely cut back funding for private religious schools. The Education Ministry refused the church's bid to require courses in Orthodox culture in public schools, though some schools have insisted on offering the courses as electives.

Chaplin said the church in much of Europe has a deeper role in public life, including free access as chaplains to prisons and the army, that is not available to Orthodox priests in Russia.

"What is still very much present here is that some state officials still think the separation of church and state means total invisibility of the church in public life, in any activities financed by the state," he said. "There are people who see religion as just another element of the market economy and who speak about elements of religious activity as areas of competition which must be regulated by market laws.

"In large measure, I think Putin is so strong that he demonstrates full respect for the church, but at the same time, he doesn't need it as a power resource," he added.

Sakharov Museum officials say they never intended the exhibit, dubbed "Caution: Religion," as an insult to the church.

"There was no other concept but to invite artists and let them speak out freely about the expression of religious attitudes in society -- positive, negative, whatever," Samodurov said.

"I must admit that some works, three or four, made me somewhat tense; maybe they evoked some shock in me. But I didn't want to prohibit these works from being exhibited. My desire was to try to understand them," he said.

If convicted, Samodurov faces the almost certain loss of his job and five years in prison, along with as much as $17,000 in fines.

"As far as liberal values go and the part of society that exercises them, for them there is no longer any place for them in this country," he said. "In the future, church organizations and secular organizations must create from scratch the experience of co-existing in a secular state -- without one trying to dominate the other. But so far, it's not happening."

The faithful gather in the Church of St. Nicolas at Pyzhi in central Moscow. In a survey this year, 71 percent of Russians identified themselves as part of the Orthodox Church. A believer kisses a cross in the hand of Archpriest Alexander Shargunov at the Church of St. Nicolas at Pyzhi. Shargunov's followers vandalized an art exhibit about religion.