SAINT PETERSBURG: US pop icon Madonna drew the wrath of Russian ministers and its mighty Church for a second time Thursday as she took her gay rights activism to a city that has just banned "homosexual propaganda."
Madonna's performance in strongman Russian President Vladimir Putin's native Saint Petersburg came just two days after she had donned a trademark balaclava on a Moscow stage in solidarity with the jailed all-girl Pussy Riot protest punks.
The Queen of Pop's team showed support for the embattled gay community of Saint Petersburg by distributing pink ribbons to all those attending. Members of radical Church support groups vowed to make their presence felt as well.
Madonna's lightning-rod stage antics and outspoken reputation create a combustible mix in a city that this year passed extremely controversial anti-gay legislation that some Putin allies hope to apply nationwide.
The US Embassy in Moscow said earlier this week that its "Consulate General in St. Petersburg has received information regarding a threat of physical violence against spectators and performers."
The city deployed 300 police officers to the Saint Petersburg Sport and Concert Complex as thousands jostled for the best remaining seats for Madonna's first appearance in Russia in six years.
But the war of words between Madonna and her hosts was in full swing many hours before the concert's scheduled -- and inevitably delayed -- late evening start.
Russia's deputy prime minister and former NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin used an epithet he declined to spell out in an angry tweet about Madonna's moral values.
"Either take off your cross, or put on your knickers," Rogozin wrote.
A local lawmaker meanwhile said Madonna's show would be closely monitored for signs of violating the new ban on propaganda of deviant behaviour.
"We should not allow the imposition here in Russia of Western values that Madonna promotes," a spokeswoman for lawmaker Vitaly Milonov said.
Saint Petersburg earlier this year passed loosely-worded legislation that fines those "promoting homosexuality" to minors and apparently equating it with paedophilia.
Russia legalised homosexuality in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union but only ceased to classify it as a mental disorder in 1999.
Homophobic attitudes still run high across the country and are promoted by some of Russia's most popular and powerful politicians today.
The Russian Orthodox Church for its part has seen its ranks swell during Putin's 12 years in power as the state seeks a reliable national base of support.
"She calls herself 'Madonna' and desecrates the cross," religious activist Kirill Frolov of the Corporation of Orthodox Action said.
"We will not tolerate this," he said.
Saint Petersburg banned what would have been Russia's first authorised gay pride rally last month after a deluge of complaints from residents.
Gay activists had earlier called on the superstar to cancel her concerts in Russia as a gesture of support for the gay community. Several were seen holding solitary pickets on Thursday to show their displeasure with Madonna's decision to show up.
"In our opinion, it is not enough to say a few words in support of homosexuals between two songs during a concert," said local gay rights activist Yury Gavrikov.
Madonna had stripped to a black bra in Moscow on Tuesday to reveal the words "Pussy Riot" written on her back.
She said she prayed for the freedom of the band members after prosecutors sought three years in a corrective labour facility on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
The verdict will be handed down on August 17.