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Russian Orthodox Church elects 16th patriarch

Metropolitan Kirill succeeds the late Alexei II. The ascension of Kirill, who is known as a modernizer, fuels hopes of rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church.

January 28, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — Metropolitan Kirill, a prominent and politically astute priest with a reputation as a modernizer, was elected patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church on Tuesday.

With his enthronement Sunday, Kirill will become the first patriarch inducted since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He takes charge at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys wealth and political influence unmatched since the days of czarist Russia.

"It is with humility and full understanding of my responsibility that I accept the divine choice through which I am being handed the mission to serve as patriarch," Kirill said after the results of a secret vote were announced. "At the center of this mission is the cross of Christ."

About 700 priests, monks and powerful laypeople gathered for the vote in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, the hulking temple flattened under Josef Stalin and rebuilt in the 1990s as a potent symbol of the church's resurgence.

As the head of the tabulation board proclaimed the result, bells clanged in salute from the cathedral and the nearby Kremlin.

A 62-year-old native of St. Petersburg, Kirill took over as interim leader after the death last month of Patriarch Alexei II and had been regarded as the most likely candidate to become the 16th patriarch. The longtime head of the denomination's external relations, Kirill is expected to undertake some modest modernization within the conservative confines of the church.

"On the one hand, he's a remarkable preacher and theologist; on the other hand, he's a diplomat experienced in huge, bureaucratic work," said Sergei Chapnin, editor of the patriarchy's Church Guardian newspaper.

"Today the Orthodox Church is not only a spiritual but also a tremendous social force in Russia. The state cannot ignore the position of the church when we talk about the interests of its citizens."

Most notably, hopes are high that the new patriarch may smooth tensions with the Roman Catholic Church. Alexei II avoided meeting the pope and accused Catholic priests of trying to convert Orthodox believers.

Kirill has visited the Vatican and made some conciliatory remarks. Despite general Orthodox wariness of Catholic intentions toward Russia, analysts say he may look for common ground with Pope Benedict XVI.

Kirill is also expected to continue the work of his predecessor, who built the Soviet-wrecked church into an institution tightly allied with the government.

Marginalized and infiltrated during decades of anti-religious Soviet rule, the Orthodox Church has enjoyed increasing political clout under Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister and former president. As Putin sought to reawaken patriotic pride among Russians, first as president and then in his current post, the church regained its bygone sway.

Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have appeared at worship services and invited priests to flank them at photo opportunities. The church embarked on an ambitious campaign of building and restoring houses of worship across the land. Monasteries flourished once more, and priests were allowed into many Russian public schools to teach children about the Orthodox faith.

Analysts describe the relationship between Russia's power elite and the church as one of mutual dependence: The Orthodox have managed to reclaim their lost status, while political leaders gain the legitimacy provided by the very public support of religious leaders.

As Russia's growing financial crisis raises the possibility of public discontent, the church could become even more crucial to maintaining political stability.

"Ties between the Kremlin and the church will get tighter and tighter," said Alexander Nezhny, a Russian writer who specializes in religion. "Today the Russian Orthodox Church is the de facto state church, enjoying perks and advantages from the state. In the new era, this mutual penetration will be deeper."

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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