MOSCOW, April 5 (Reuters) - The Russian Orthodox Church apologised on Thursday for doctoring a photograph of Patriarch Kirill to remove what bloggers said was a luxury wristwatch following accusations that he lives a lavish lifestyle.
It responded after eagle-eyed bloggers said an archive photo of the Patriarch on its website showed the reflection of a Breguet watch worth about $30,000 in the polished surface of a table where his arms rested during talks.
The Church has been under close scrutiny since clearly backing Vladimir Putin in March's presidential election despite protests and accusations of widespread fraud benefiting his party in a December parliamentary poll.
The Church made no reference to a watch in a statement, but said a "rude violation of our internal ethics" had been made and removed the doctored 2009 photo from its Website, replacing it with a version showing a watch on his wrist.
"Employees of the press service's photo-editing desk made a silly mistake while working with the photo archives," the statement said, promising they would be punished.
"We apologise to all the users of the website for the technical mistake," it said. "One of the basic principles of our work is the fundamental rejection of the use of photo editing programmes to alter images."
The Church issued a statement on Tuesday saying it was under attack from "anti-Russian forces" that wanted to erode its authority because of its backing for Putin.
It urged Orthodox Christians to come to churches on April 22 for a nationwide prayer "in defence of the faith".
Opposition forces had hoped for the Church's support in the protests against electoral fraud, which raised calls for an end to Putin's rule.
But the Church has ignored the calls and upset the opposition further by demanding tough punishment of members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot who sang a protest song in Moscow's main cathedral on Feb 21.
CRITICS TAKE AIM AT KIRILL
Bloggers have since then stepped up accusations that Kirill leads an opulent lifestyle that is unbecoming of his status as head of the Church, and pro-opposition media outlets have questioned an alleged role in dealings around duty-free alcohol and tobacco imports in the 1990s.
"If someone unequivocally identifies this watch as a Breguet, I really do not understand how the Patriarch can remain a spiritual authority," wrote a blogger identified only as homo-ineruditus (an uninformed person).
The Patriarch has denied any wrongdoing.
A journalist who met Kirill to discuss the allegations told Vesti FM radio that the Patriarch had acknowledged receiving a luxury watch as a gift but that he had not worn it. Kirill was quoted as saying photos of him wearing it were a "collage".
Patriarch Kirill has also come under scrutiny over a dispute linked to an apartment he owns in central Moscow. Kirill's press service said a distant relative lives in the apartment.
Asked to respond, a Church spokesman said it was unethical to comment on the Patriarch's private life.
"We do not have the desire or ability to examine what watch the Patriarch wears and what shoes he comes to work in," Deacon Alexander Volkov said. "Such comments are unethical. It is his private life."
Kirill has described Putin's 12-year rule of Russia as prime minister and president as a miracle of God. But backing him so openly could backfire in a society polarised by the protests in big cities, particularly Moscow, since December.
"Society has become more active of late so questions that were not much talked about, not noticed before, now attract a lot of attention: That is corruption, election fraud and issues linked to the church," said Andrei Zubov, a historian who has studied Russian church-state relations.
"A whole series of topics that are unpleasant for the Church leadership have come to light."