Andrei Yerofeyev and Yury Samodurov, two Russian curators, who organized a show called “Forbidden Art 2006,” are facing possible three-year jail sentences for offending the religious beliefs of the Russian Orthodox community, which is against the law in their country. The decision from the court will come down on July 12. The exhibit, which featured a Mickey Mouse Jesus, a Coca-Cola Christ with the slogan “this is my blood,” and a crucified savior with an Order of Lenin medal in place of his head, pissed off the Russian Orthodox community -- which then pressured the government to prosecute them.

Ironically, the exhibition was held at the Sakharov Museum -- named after dissident Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel Prize winner who spoke out for civil rights and against nuclear proliferation.

In an open letter, some of the country’s most prestigious artists are asking President Dmitry Medvedev to halt the prosecution of Yerofeyev and Samodurov. The letter signers say that a guilty verdict will make Russia look bad in the international artistic community and signal a return to bad old Soviet-style cultural censorship at the hands of a powerful right-wing church.

The country’s culture minister has declared that the two men are not guilty of spreading hatred against those who believe in religion.

Archpriest Vladimir Vigilyanksy, press spokesperson for the bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that jail sentences are not appropriate. "Any believer will tell you that they can be convicted for inciting religious strife,” Vigilyansky said, “but I think that their conviction should not lead to imprisonment. I'm asking the authorities to show clemency and leniency toward them."

How noble of him -- after his church pushed for the prosecution in the first place!

One of the curators, Samodurov, is no stranger to controversy. He was fined 100,000 rubles (about $3,600) for his “Caution, Religion” exhibit in January 2003. That exhibit was forced to close after altar boys defaced work they considered blasphemous.

Yerofeyev described the court as “an insane asylum” that he has been forced to visit every week. “In front of us opened a pagan wilderness,” he said. “Old women shook with anger, they spat in my face.”

That insane asylum is being orchestrated by a church that has now come back into power big time. Gleb Yakunin, a priest who has severed ties with the church years ago, told CBS 13, “The church has become an instrument of censorship like it was during czarist times. It wants to control culture.”

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a longtime human rights activist, agreed. “I am very afraid for them. The church is now younger, more energetic.”

How scary for artists and freethinkers in Russia.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which has been nominated for both an American Library Association and a Lambda Literary award. His website is www.avicollimecca.com.