The Washington Times - January 27, 2009, 03:33PM

He is now Patriarch Kirill I of Russia.

Elected today in Moscow, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, was the front runner to succeed the late Patriarch Alexi II as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. What makes this choice an interesting one is that Kirill is generally seen as far more friendly toward Catholics than was his predecessor and that, finally, Pope Benedict XVI just might get invited to Russia.


Here (I am cribbing this from Robert Monyihan’s “Inside the Vatican” report as well as Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia) is a man who was elected by 80 percent (about 500 of the Russian Orthodox bishops gathered in Moscow). He will be enthroned this weekend. He is 62.

The reason thatt Kirill was an intriguing choice is that he’s been involved in ecumenical activities since 1971, when he represented the Moscow Patriarchate at the World Council of Churches. He has traveled widely, including several trips to Rome, where he’s already met the current pope.

He is known as a diplomat and also as the host of a weekly TV program on Orthodoxy. His first task will be to rebuild Orthodoxy from its near collapse under 70 years of Communism, and it will be interesting to see if he tries to quash other religious movements in the country that compete againt the Orthodox Church. Will he try to use the Russian government as a tool in making life difficult, if not impossible, for Pentecostals, Baptists, Roman Catholics and Muslims, or will he lean on his government contacts to lighten up? He has already said, through a surrogate, that he came down hard on all those Protestants who flooded Russia in the early 1990s to try to win over disaffected Orthos.

Kirill will represent 135 million Russian Orthodox and in recent days has also had to deflect rumors that he might go soft on the Catholics by saying certain issues need to be resolved beforehand.

I’ve never been to Russia, but judging from my 1993 visit to Greece, the Orthodox aren’t exactly ecumenical when it comes to letting other Christian groups have a shot at planting churches in their midst. It was very much a if-you’re-Greek-you-must-be-Orthodox mentality, which is pretty foreign to how things have been run over on this side of the pond for 232 years. We don’t have a state church here, but in Russia they do.

I get very conflicting reports as to the state of religious freedom in Russia these days. But it would be wildly interesting if Kirill was not so protectionist and actually put his energies into building up Orthodoxy to the point that Russians might want to be in church, not go there because they have so few choices to be elsewhere.

— Julia Duin, religion editor