January 28, 2009

Russian Orthodox Church Elects New Leader

MOSCOW – The interim leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, seen as a modernizer who could seek a historic reconciliation with the Vatican and more autonomy from the state, was overwhelmingly elected patriarch Tuesday.

Metropolitan Kirill received 508 of the 700 votes cast during an all-day church congress in Moscow's ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral, the head of the commission responsible for the election, Metropolitan Isidor, said hours after the secret ballot was over.

Kirill defeated a conservative rival, Metropolitan Kliment, who received 169 votes, Isidor said. Another 23 ballots were declared invalid,

It was the first vote for a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the fall of the officially atheist Soviet Union in 1991.

Kirill, 62, will be installed Sunday as the successor to Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, who had headed Russia's dominant church since 1990. Alexy II died Dec. 5, at age 79, after leading the church in a powerful post-Soviet revival.

The son of a priest, Kirill has headed the external relations department of the world's largest Orthodox Christian church for nearly 20 years, making him point man for ties with the Roman Catholic Church. He met with Pope Benedict XVI in December 2007.

Efforts toward a reconciliation nearly a millennium after Christianity's east-west schism have been stymied by accusations by the Russian church of Catholic missionary activity on its traditional territory and disputes over property and influence in Ukraine.

Kirill has echoed Alexy's warnings that those disagreements remain obstacles to a long-awaited meeting between pope and patriarch — the unrealized dream of the late Pope John Paul II. But he has also promoted unity with the Roman Catholic Church against the secularism and immorality he says threatens humanity.

The Vatican "rejoiced" over Kirill's election, said its spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He said Kirill was esteemed in the Vatican and expressed hope his service would "continue to deepen our path of reciprocal understanding and collaboration for the good of humanity."

In Russia, Kirill is seen as a politically savvy figure who may seek a more muscular role for the church, which has served the state for much of its 1,000-year history. Church and state are officially separate under the post-Soviet constitution, but ties have tightened again since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

Kirill will face opposition from a strong conservative movement within the church that sees him as too modern and too eager for a rapprochement with Catholics.

"He's perfectly aware of the risks he will be taking," political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said. Regarding ties with the Vatican, Belkovsky said, "He will go for it if he feels the moment has come, but he won't fast-track it."

Kirill will be under pressure to live up to Alexy's reputation as a unifying figure.

"He is a true successor of Alexy's work. Once again he will help consolidate and unite our society," said Metropolitan Feofan, a church leader in southern Russia. "There is joy in my heart."

The Kremlin tightened its control over all aspects of life under Putin, now prime minister, and is wary of any other institution gaining too much independence. Alexy strongly supported Putin and the government; whatever Kirill's intentions, observers say a major shift in the relationship with the state is unlikely.

Some nonreligious Russians complain the church has tailored its doctrine to suit the government, which has justified Russia's retreat from Western-style democracy by saying the country has a unique history and culture.

Kirill, the best-known church figure after Alexy, was the front-runner to replace him. His chances improved after Metropolitan Filaret — one of three candidates picked by church leaders Sunday — withdrew and urged supporters to back Kirill.

After the announcement of his election, Kirill bowed and asked the clergy "to be indulgent for my weaknesses, to help me with your wise advice, to be close to me as I perform my pastoral duties — and most of all I ask you always to pray for me."

The Russian Orthodox Church counts in its congregation more than 100 million people in Russia and tens of millions elsewhere. But polls show that only about 5 percent of Russians are observant believers.

State television broadcast much of Tuesday's session live. In opening remarks, Kirill thanked President Dmitry Medvedev's administration for "warm and very benevolent greetings."

Both Putin and Medvedev called Kirill later to congratulate him


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