ATHENS (Reuters) - The head of Greece’s powerful Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, who mended ties with the Vatican but clashed with the Greek state, died of cancer on Monday at the age of 69.
A staunch defender of the role of the church in Greece, he died at his home in Athens, only months after plans for a liver transplant in the United States were cancelled.
“He was an enlightened church leader whose work brought the church closer to society, closer to modern problems and to young people,” Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a statement.
Flags flew at half-mast on the Athens Acropolis and across the city as bells tolled. Condolences poured in as crowds of black-clad mourners gathered at the Metropolitan Cathedral where his funeral will be held after a three-day wake.
“It is like I have lost my father,” an elderly woman praying outside the church told Greek TV.
The government announced he would receive a funeral befitting a head of state, while public services will shut down on the day.
Several hundred mourners gathered behind a police cordon outside the cathedral to pay tribute, as his body lay inside. Some held flowers and wept quietly.
“He kept our faith and tradition strong and alive,” pensioner Vaso Kapsalidou, 73. “At a time of instability, the Church was our haven.”
The head of about 10 million Greek Orthodox faithful, Christodoulos courted controversy -- from his first reformist days to a conservative U-turn that drove away many supporters.
He also grudgingly agreed to a landmark visit by Pope John Paul to Greece in 2001 that marked a turning point in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches following the Great Schism of 1054 that split Christianity.
Nikolaos Gasparakis, press officer of the Catholic Church of Greece, told state television that these first steps by Christodoulos towards his church were “historic”.
Born Christos Paraskevaidis in northeastern Greece in 1939, Christodoulos became the youngest head of the church when he was elected to the top post in 1998, following the death of his predecessor.
He stunned Greeks by calling on young people to return to the Orthodox church “as you are, earrings and all,” and cracking jokes during his weekly sermons, instantly raising his institution’s popularity and profile.
“He opened up the Church to young people and while I was never one of his supporters I have to admit that he treated younger people with more respect than his predecessors,” said Yannis Konstantinidis, 32.
But Christodoulos’s laid-back approach soon gave way to a bitter feud with the then socialist government over new ID cards, which according to European Union directives no longer listed a person’s religion.
His frequent tirades against the EU and European culture, his reference to Turks as “barbarians”, labeling gays as being “handicapped”, and his growing public involvement in foreign policy issues chipped away at his popularity.
He was diagnosed with cancer in June 2007.
“The way he dealt with his disease and imminent death moved us, sending a unique message of courage and dignity,” Greek President Karolos Papoulias said in a statement.
Additional reporting by the Athens bureau; Editing by Charles Dick