Saint Petersburg famed for its cultural heritage is often called the "northern Palmyra"
Saint Petersburg (AFP) - More than a thousand Russians rallied in Saint Petersburg on Sunday after a century-old bas relief of a mythical demon was destroyed amid fears of increasing religious intolerance under President Vladimir Putin.
Last week, the figure of Mephistopheles was ripped down from the facade of a century-old building in Saint Petersburg. An obscure group calling itself the Cossacks of Saint Petersburg claimed responsibility.
The seemingly religiously-motivated act of vandalism caused an outcry in the former imperial capital and police launched a probe.
The figure of a bat-winged creature on Lakhtinskaya Street dated back to around 1910.
By some accounts, the bas relief paid homage to legendary Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin famed for his role of Mephistopheles.
More than a thousand people including architecture preservationists gathered in front of the building in the city centre to express their dismay over what activists dubbed a "brazen act of vandalism."
"Hands off art," read one placard, while another one said in English: "Save our Saint Petersburg."
"What happened is awful," said Anna Astakhova, 35.
"If it's true that the bas relief was destroyed for religious reasons, then we are descending into the Middle Ages. This is inadmissible."
Another protester, Galina Vanina, added: "I am an Orthodox Christian myself but I do not support this absurdity."
"Art cannot offend anyone," added the 60-year-old woman, calling those who destroyed the figure "vandals."
A lawmaker with the Yabloko liberal opposition party, Boris Vishnevsky, said the architectural heritage should be protected.
"One cannot mistreat the city," he said.
In an open letter, the Cossacks of Saint Petersburg said the figure encouraged "open worship of Satan" and was unacceptable because it was opposite a church.
Established Cossack groups in the city denied any knowledge of this group, however.
Cossacks once defended the borders of the Russian empire but now often campaign to promote conservative values.
Police said they had found smashed fragments of the figure in rubbish sacks.
Prosecutors opened a probe into destruction of cultural heritage, which carries a jail term of up to two years.
A spokesman for the powerful Russian Orthodox Church said the attack was an understandable reaction.
"Mephistopheles embodies evil in this world and this person decided to act, most likely, to kill Evil," spokesman Roman Bagdasarov told pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia.
Saint Petersburg famed for its cultural heritage is often called the "northern Palmyra."
After the destruction of the bas relief some drew parallels between the Russian vandals and Islamic State militants who blew up a temple at Syria's ancient ruins of Palmyra.
Earlier this month fundamentalist Orthodox activists attacked several exhibits at a show of sculptures in Moscow, saying they offended believers.
The attackers damaged several linocuts by renowned Soviet artist Vadim Sidur that will cost more than 1 million rubles ($15,000) to restore.
Since returning to the presidency for a third term in 2012, Putin has been promoting an unflinchingly conservative agenda in a move aimed at cementing his support among blue-collar workers and elderly Russians, his core backers.
Kremlin critics say that after the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last year that conservative trend has become disturbingly strong.