The Russian Orthodox Church has called for leniency towards the members of the punk band, Pussy Riot, who have been imprisoned.

The three women who make up the group were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

As part of the prayer they called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has said that the trial was politically motivated and that the women were wrongfully prosecuted for a legitimate, if potentially offensive, protest action.

It said the verdict was "a bitter blow to freedom of expression" in Russia.

Amnesty International said that it "considers all three activists to be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs."

The organisation in a statement said that: "The Russian authorities should overturn the court ruling and release the members of Pussy Riot immediately and unconditionally,"

European nations and the United States, as well as some celebrities, also voiced sharp criticism of Russia over the jail sentences.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has said that the two-year sentences give to the women were "disproportionate" to the crime and added to the intimidation of opposition activists in Russia.

Ms Ashton said that: "Together with the reports of the band members' mistreatment during pre-trial detention and the reported irregularities of the trial, it (the verdict) puts a serious question mark over Russia's respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process."

The US also expressed disappointment over the verdict and also called the sentences disproportionate.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement: "While we understand the group's behaviour was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system."

The Pussy Riot case, seen as a test of the extent of Putin's tolerance of dissent, has added to the strain already placed on relations between Moscow and European governments by their opposed positions on the crisis in Syria.

Other human rights groups urged Russian authorities to overturn the verdict and free the three women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30.