Patriarch who revived Russian Orthodox Church dies
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Patriarch Alexiy II, a staunch conservative who revived Russia's Orthodox Church after the collapse of communism and forged close links with the Kremlin, died on Friday at the age of 79.
The Moscow Patriarchy said Alexiy, who led the powerful church for 18 years, died at his residence in Peredelkino, a former Soviet writers' colony outside Moscow.
The official cause of death was heart failure but diplomats said he had been suffering from cancer. The day before his death, Alexiy officiated at a religious ceremony in Moscow.
Russia's political leaders, who were close to Alexiy and view the Orthodox Church as a key pillar of support, were quick to praise him.
President Dmitry Medvedev, on an official visit to India, hailed the patriarch as "an outstanding religious figure" and cancelled a planned trip to Italy to return to Moscow.
"He was a true shepherd, who throughout his life was an example of spiritual fortitude and noble human deeds," Medvedev told state television.
Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin -- a former communist spy who is now a devout Orthodox worshipper -- said Alexiy did "a great deal for the formation of a new Russian statehood."
Despite Alexiy's repeated criticism of the Catholic Church for trying to poach Orthodox converts and his resistance to a meeting with the Vatican, Pope Benedict was generous in his praise of the Russian religious leader.
Benedict, whose conservative social views chimed with those of Alexiy, praised the Patriarch for "the rebirth of the Church, after the severe ideological repression which led to the martyrdom of so many witnesses to the Christian faith."
"I also recall his courageous battle for the defence of human and Gospel values, especially in the European continent," he said.
That battle included a 2007 appearance before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe when Alexiy described homosexuals as sinners suffering an illness comparable to kleptomania.
Such views are not unusual in Russia and after news of the patriarch's death, weeping worshippers visited Moscow churches and lit candles to mark the occasion. Some told stories of the Patriarch's healing powers, and wondered about his successor.
At the Kazansky Cathedral at the edge of Red Square, Natalia Levchuk, 48, told a reporter that Patriarch Alexiy had cured her asthmatic son when he blessed them at a service 10 years ago.
"As we approached him for the blessing, it seemed like he was radiating a kind of heat. For all the years that have passed we have not had a single problem with his illness," she said at the steps of the chapel.
At the ornate Christ the Saviour Cathedral in central Moscow, rebuilt during Alexiy's reign after its destruction by Stalin, Archdeacon Alexander, who studied under the patriarch, held back tears as he spoke to a reporter near the high altar.
"He served the church when there were only 40 places of worship in Moscow and now by his grace there are more than 500. So one can only imagine what this tragedy will mean for the church," he told Reuters.
The Moscow Patriarchy said all night prayer services for Alexiy would take place at Orthodox churches across Russia. His body will lie in state from Saturday afternoon for followers to bid farewell to the Patriarch.
Under Russian Orthodox Church procedures, a Holy Synod of 12 senior clergy will meet on Saturday to make funeral arrangements and choose an interim patriarch until a bigger Church Council is held within the next six months to pick Alexiy's successor.
Russian media speculated that Metropolitan Kirill, head of external relations, and Metropolitan Klement, seen as a more nationalist figure closer to the authorities, were among the leading candidates.
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia since 1990, Estonian-born Alexiy was an influential figure with a controversial past.
He oversaw a major religious revival in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of new churches were built across the country, monasteries reopened and seminaries filled with new priests.
Russia's Orthodox Church is by far the biggest of the churches in the Eastern Orthodox communion, which split with Western Christianity in the Great Schism of 1054. It is the majority religion in Russia.
Despite church denials, Alexiy failed to shake off allegations by researchers that he had links to the Soviet KGB intelligence service.
The Mitrokhin Archive, a collection of KGB reminiscences by former archivist Vasily Mitrokhin, said Alexiy worked for the KGB as "Agent Drozdov" and received an honorary citation from the agency for his services. The church always disputed this.
Alexei Mikhailovich Ridiger was born on February 23, 1929 in the Estonian capital Tallinn, into the family of a Russian Orthodox priest of German descent.
He later said his family's many pilgrimages to the then Soviet Union's religious sites were key to moulding his future.
In 1953 he graduated from the St Petersburg Spiritual Academy as a priest. He served in Estonia and Russia before becoming a monk in 1961, taking the vow of chastity necessary for any Orthodox clergyman seeking a top position in the church.
In 1961 he was appointed Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia and in 1986 was consecrated Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod.
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