Wednesday, January 28, 2009

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.

Metropolitan Kirill beat out a conservative rival, Metropolitan Kliment, who received 169 votes, Metropolitan Isidor said. Twenty-three ballots were declared invalid after the first vote for a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the fall of the officially atheist Soviet Union in 1991.

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

The son of a priest, Metropolitan 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 for a reconciliation nearly a millennium after Christianity’s east-west schism have been stymied amid accusations by the Russian church of Catholic missionary activity on its traditional territory and disputes over church influence and property in Ukraine.

Metropolitan Kirill has echoed Patriarch Alexy’s often repeated warning that those disagreements remain obstacles to a long-awaited meeting between pope and patriarch. But he has also promoted unity with the Roman Catholic Church against the secularism and immorality he says threatens societies across Europe.

Within Russia, Metropolitan Kirill is seen as a politically minded figure who may seek a measure of independence 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, first as president and now as prime minister.

Despite the lopsided vote, Metropolitan 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 Roman Catholics. He will have to tread carefully or risk serious discord in the church.

After the announcement of his election, Metropolitan Kirill 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’m asking you always to pray for me.”

“May God bless our people, our country,” he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church counts its flock as more than 100 million in Russia and tens of millions elsewhere, though polls show that only about 5 percent of Russians - mostly low-income rural dwellers and urban intellectuals - are observant believers.

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