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Russia's new patriarch seen as modernizer

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Patriarch Kirill, enthroned on Sunday as the new leader of around 160 million Russian Orthodox believers, is seen as an outspoken modernizer who may thaw icy ties with the Catholic Church.

The first patriarch elected since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kirill, 62, replaces Alexiy II, a conservative credited with reviving the Church and transforming its place in Russian society before his death from illness last month.

Kirill’s tenure as the 16th Russian Orthodox Patriarch, like that of Alexiy before him, is likely to be defined by his relations to two powerful institutions: the Kremlin and the Catholic Church.

Some hope Kirill will establish better ties with Catholics than Alexiy, who accused Rome of trying to poach Orthodox believers and resisted meeting the pope.

Hopes of a thaw have been fueled by Kirill’s meeting with Pope Benedict in the Vatican in 2007 and his optimistic comments about better relations with Rome.

But Kirill has also echoed Alexei’s criticisms of Catholics on occasions.

“Kirill is probably more sympathetic to improving relations with the Vatican,” said Professor John Anderson, an expert on Russian Orthodoxy at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“He also has to watch what he says” considering how conservative the rest of the Church is, he added.

In an interview given shortly before his election as patriarch, Kirill said a meeting with the pope would be possible “when there are conclusive signs of real and positive progress” on issues dividing the Churches.


Like Rome, the Kremlin will loom large over Kirill’s tenure.

Alexiy’s legacy of pushing the Church back to the center of Russian life after the fall of atheist communism in Russia was largely based on close ties with political leaders, who helped fund a huge wave of church building.

Church officials are given pride of place at state occasions and political leaders are regularly filmed attending mass on major Church holidays.

In a 2005 letter to then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Kirill described the Russian Orthodox Church as “completely separate from the state apparatus” and said clerics would never involve themselves in politics.

But both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev stood at the side of the alter Sunday when Kirill was enthroned as patriarch. Medvedev told worshippers he hoped Kirill would help foster dialogue between Church and state.

Canon Michael Bordeaux, head of the Keston Institute that monitors religion in former communist states, said close ties with the Kremlin are unlikely to weaken any time soon.

“As it is, the Moscow Patriarchate never criticises the Kremlin over its internal or external policies ... I don’t think Kirill will start doing that.”

“In the Orthodox tradition, which goes back 500 years, the state and the Church work together,” he said.

Born in Leningrad, now called St Petersburg, into a priest’s family, Kirill was ordained a priest in 1969. He later served as rector of the Leningrad seminary, regarded as one of the most open to the West.

Before his election as patriarch, Kirill headed the Church’s department for external relations, the same role filled by Alexiy II before his election, and one which gave him significant exposure on Russian television.

Kirill was named acting head of the Church on Alexiy’s death and made a powerful speech at his mentor’s funeral. He was confirmed in office in late January by a council of 700 priests, monks and laymen, who elected him with 508 out of 677 valid votes.

Writing by Conor Humphries; editing by Tim Pearce