SOFIA Patriarch Maxim, who led Bulgaria's Orthodox Christians for 41 years, has died at the age of 98, his church announced on Tuesday, saying he "presented himself to God" at 3.30 a.m. (0130 GMT) following heart failure.
Churches in the Balkan country held mourning masses to commemorate the longest serving patriarch in their 1,100 year-old history, which saw the church survive centuries of Turkish domination and decades of communism.
Maxim eventually overcame a revolt within the church following the collapse of communist rule in 1989 to become the longest serving head in Orthodox Christianity - the mainstream religion in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Georgia.
He will be buried on Friday in the Troyan Monastery, close to the village of Oreshak in central Bulgaria, where Maxim was born as Marin Naidenov Minkov on October 29, 1914. A funeral service will be held a day before at Sofia's key cathedral.
Under church procedures the Synod of senior clergy will have to choose an interim patriarch until a larger electoral Church Council is held within the next four months to pick Maxim's successor among the country's 15 bishops.
Patriarch Maxim has kept a low public profile but was an influential figure with a controversial past.
He oversaw a major religious revival in Bulgaria after the collapse of communist rule. Dozens of new churches were built across the country and monasteries reopened.
He was elected Patriarch in 1971 under the communist regime, which did not impose an outright ban on religious practices but discriminated against those who attended mass in their professional careers.
After the fall of communism rebel clerics split from the Holy Synod, setting up an alternative Orthodox Church, accusing Maxim of collaborating with the former repressive regime and questioning the legitimacy of his election.
The rebels said Maxim was not rightfully elected but named by late Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.
Maxim consolidated support and managed to keep his post. After years of bitter schism and separation, the church united in 1998, with the last rebel priests repenting 10 years later.
A recent report from a history commission established that there were no documents linking Maxim with the much feared secret police but found that 11 of the Balkan country's 15 bishops had been collaborators with the Communist regime.
Maxim took Holy Orders in 1941 and became secretary general of the Holy Synod in 1955.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Greg Mahlich)