The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has said that although homosexuality is still a sin, gay people must not be discriminated against.

Kirill met with Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, a pan-European human rights body.

According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, he told Jagland: “We respect the person’s free choice, including in sex relations.”

Although he reiterated that the majority of religions saw homosexuality as a sin and gay marriage could not be allowed, he added: “Those who commit a sin must not be punished… And we have repeatedly spoken out against discriminating people for their nontraditional sexual orientation.”

In January 2008, Kirill, who was then head of the Moscow Patriarchate department for external church relations, said that not viewing homosexuality as a sin would lead to a variety of other sexual perversions.

“Morality is either absolute or it does not exist. If you excuse homosexuality, why not excuse paedophilia?” he said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegal.

When the interviewer pointed out that there was a “great difference” between homosexuality and paedophilia, as the latter violated the “personal freedom” of children, Kirill said that people in the future would say that “12-year-old girls were considered children before, but now they develop much faster.

“Twenty years ago nobody could imagine that Germany would legalise homosexual marriages,” he continued.

“However, they get used to it by now. It is a matter of principle. There is one moral nature.

“The task of the Church is to say that sin is sin. Otherwise, the Church is not needed.”

In March 2007, Kirill objected to Moscow hosting a gay pride parade.

“It is directed against the majority of Russian society.

“We believe that the law should not interfere in citizens’ private lives.

“You can sin if you want to, but you will answer to God.

“However, if you are trying to propagate your sin by seducing and degrading people, society must oppose it.”

In a statement issued in August 2000, he explained that globalisation would inevitably lead to the kingdom of the anti-Christ and that it was the Russian Orthodox Church’s role to defend Russian nationality and religious identity.