Russian church prepares to elect new patriarch
AFP - Sunday, January 25
MOSCOW (AFP) - - The Russian Orthodox Church on Sunday starts the process for electing a new patriarch to head a church enjoying a post-Soviet boom in popularity and cosy relations with the Kremlin.
Church leaders from across the Russian Orthodox world will choose a shortlist of three candidates to head the church after the death last month of Alexy II, its first patriarch of the post-Soviet era.
A wider meeting of the full Church Council, also at the vast Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, will be held next week to choose the new patriarch by Thursday before his enthronement next weekend.
The favourite to succeed Alexy is the current interim head of the church, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, whose bearded features and booming voice have been omnipresent on state television over the last weeks.
Kirill, the powerful head of the church's foreign relations unit, is known to millions of Russians through his weekly television show "Words of a Pastor" where he expounds on church issues and answers viewers' spiritual problems.
"The best guarantee of the independence of the Church Council is the new experience of the church under conditions of freedom," Kirill said in the show's latest edition, rejecting claims of state interference in the vote.
"For the last 20 years there has been no state control over the life of the church," he added. In the Russian Orthodox Church, a metropolitan is the head of an ecclesiastical province.
His main rival is the lower-profile Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, who runs the church administration and is almost unknown to the average Russian but has a strong following amongst the clergy.
"Kirill is someone in the public eye and polls show that the public only recognise him as a candidate," said Boris Falikov of the religious studies centre at the state university of humanities in Moscow.
"But it's the clergy who carry out the election and Kliment is well known in the church where he has many supporters."
Kirill, 62, has been portrayed in some quarters as a reformist and Kliment, 59, as more conservative but analysts warn that attaching such political adjectives to church leaders risks sowing confusion.
Some Russian newspapers have said the main difference is not in ideology but that Kirill is happy to see the church play a major role in political life while the more withdrawn Kliment wants to focus on its spiritual role alone.
In any case, a bizarre and unseemly smear campaign carried out against both men over the last week has raised the prospect the church could choose a less-fancied candidate in order to avoid the risk of a schism.
This could lead to the election of an elderly transitional figure, such as Metropolitan Yuvenaly of Krutitsy and Kolomna or Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk, both of whom are aged well over 70.
Whoever takes control of the church, they will be leading an institution that has gone from strength to strength since the fall of the Soviet Union, where it was tolerated but suffered severe repression.
The number of monasteries has quadrupled and more than three quarters of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox believers, compared with only a quarter in 1990.
Alexy, who was alleged to have links with the KGB in the Soviet period, became patriarch in 1990 just before the fall of the Soviet Union, so the new head will be the first to be elected in the post-Soviet era.
In a sign of the new intimacy between the church and Kremlin, both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid a farewell kiss on the body of Alexy at his funeral.
"The relationship between church and state is close and the authorities will always find a way to influence the new patriarch if required," said Falikov.
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The teeth of a bronze lion are seen near Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral. Russian Orthodox Church leaders are gathering in Christ the Saviour cathedral to start the process of electing a new patriarch to head a church enjoying a post-Soviet boom in popularity and cosy relations with the Kremlin.
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