Following Vladimir Putin’s inauguration to a third term as President of Russia at the Kremlin on May 7, Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church held a prayer service for his health and successful rule and praised him as Russia’s legitimate leader.

It was the latest sign that the leader of the Russian church has thrown his support fully behind a man who has been called a dictator at opposition rallies that have been violently crushed by riot police for two days in a row.

“I would like to extend heartfelt congratulations to you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, on your elections, since the majority of our people wisely and freely elected you as President of the Russian Federation,” Kirill said at the moleben, or prayer service. 

The service was held at the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Annunciation, after the inauguration ceremony in the throne room of the czars in a nearby building on the Kremlin grounds.

Many Russians are referring to Putin’s inauguration as a coronation, and in his words to Putin after the prayer service, Kirill invoked the connection, speaking to him of the Kremlin as the place where “where many of your pious predecessors received prayerful rites for higher service to the motherland.”

Mass protest rallies against vote fraud broke out after last December’s parliamentary elections and took the Kremlin and the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church by surprise.

Some priests and lay people have become vocal critics of Putin’s rule and of the church hierarchy’s close ties to the Kremlin. In sermons and comments in December and January, Kirill advised the government to heed protesters’ demands, but he soon began to speak out strongly in support of Putin’s re-election and to praise him for his support of the church.

“The legitimacy of the president is based on the confidence of the people,” Kirill said on May 7. “They have such confidence in you.”