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Russian Orthodox patriarch dies

December 05, 2008

Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia since 1990, died of a heart attack on Friday morning, December 5. He was 79. Born in Estonia, the future head of Eastern Orthodoxy’s largest autocephalous Church-- and the largest Christian group outside the Catholic Church-- was ordained to the priesthood in 1950 and became Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia in 1961. Elevated to the rank of archbishop in 1964, he served as chancellor of the Moscow patriarchate from 1964 until 1986, when he became Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod.

In his early years Alexei Mikhailovich Ridiger worked closely with the Soviet leadership, and he would later face charges that he had been a KGB agent-- charges that he staunchly denied. With the fall of the Soviet empire, the Russian prelate moved quickly and effectively to revive the Orthodox faith. But he was not averse to using the power of the state to bolster the status of the Moscow patriarchate, and backed restrictive laws limiting the operations of other religious groups in Russia.

Patriarch Alexei resisted efforts by Vatican officials to arrange a visit to Moscow by Pope John Paul II. On at least two occasions the Vatican sought to arrange a "summit meeting" between the late Pope and the Russian prelate, but Alexei insisted that such a meeting could not take place until the Holy See renounced "proselytism" by Catholic clerics in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Relations between Rome and Moscow warmed somewhat under Pope Benedict XVI, but the Russian Patriarch continued to complain about Catholic activities in what he termed the "canonical territory" of the Russian Church.

Pope Benedict said that he was "profoundly saddened" to learn of the Russian prelate's death. He praised Alexei for leading "the rebirth of the Church, after the severe ideological oppression 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."

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, added that the Patriarch had helped the Orthodox faith "to face the challenges of transition from the Soviet era to the present with renewed interior vitality." The cardinal, who had acted as a Vatican intermediary in dealings with the Moscow patriarchate, observed of Alexei: "His personal commitment to improving relations with the Catholic Church, in spite of the difficulties and tensions which from time to time have emerged, has never been in doubt."

The Russian Orthodox synod will meet immediately to elect a temporary leader for the Church, until all of the bishops of the Russian Orthodox faith can gather to elect a new Patriarch. The leading candidates for the interim leadership post-- and perhaps for the role of Patriarch as well-- are Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, the chief ecumenical officer of the Moscow patriarchate, and Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga, the chancellor.


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