- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) — A new patriarch took charge of the Russian Orthodox Church on Sunday, formally becoming the first leader of the world’s largest Orthodox church to take office after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Patriarch Kirill, 62, has been a cautious advocate of change and a prominent figure in trying to reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church.

He became the 16th person to bear the title in a solemn ceremony at Christ the Savior Cathedral. The original 19th-century church was dynamited under Stalin but rebuilt after the Soviet collapse. The ceremony was broadcast live on national television and attended by President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and scores of other officials from Russia and ex-Soviet states.

Patriarch Alexy II died in early December after almost two decades at the helm of the church when millions of Russians returned to their historic faith. But polls show that only about 5 percent of Russians are observant believers, and only 30 percent of the population believe they should follow the moral teachings of the church.

Kirill, long Alexy’s deputy, has been critical of tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, multiparty democracy, and the division of secular and religious authority.

He adheres to nationalist ideas about Russia’s role in the world and supports the idea that Russian civilization is fundamentally different from and opposed to Western concepts. An unusually public and outspoken religious figure in a church known for its traditionalism, he long has pushed for introduction of Orthodox religious classes in schools. He appears on television shows and frequently voices his opinion on secular matters, including Russia’s current economic crisis.

On the day after his election, Kirill pledged to refrain from initiating “top-down reforms that hurt people,” but cautiously promised changes, the Interfax news agency reported. He is expected by some to 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 Mr. Putin came to power in 2000.

Among the changes Kirill is likely to initiate is wider use of the Russian language in services instead of the archaic Church Slavonic and permission for women to wear trousers inside churches. He will face opposition from a strong conservative movement within the church that sees him as too modern.

After his election, church leaders ruled out a meeting between pope and patriarch — the unrealized dream of the late Pope John Paul II. The Russian church accuses the Vatican of trying to convert Russians to the Catholic faith. There have also been disputes over property and influence in Ukraine, where both churches have large flocks.

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