MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia bade farewell on Tuesday to Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II at a grand funeral ceremony at which speakers praised him for reviving the nation’s Christian faith after decades of communist atheism.
Streets in central Moscow halted and state television canceled normal programing to broadcast the half-day long tribute to Alexiy, who died on Friday aged 79.
President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wearing black suits and black ties, arrived with their spouses after nearly three hours of the funeral ceremony had passed. They stood near the patriarch’s coffin, holding lighted candles.
“His Holiness always remembered that the Russian Orthodox Church was the only one which preserved the traditions, the memory and the values of holy Rus,” Metropolitan Kirill, the Church’s interim leader, said in a tribute delivered next to the coffin in the city’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
The 62-year-old Kirill was helped away by aides at one point and a Kremlin official said he had apparently fainted. The metropolitan later rejoined the funeral.
Orthodox patriarchs and metropolitans (senior bishops) from Russia and abroad stood in the vast cathedral as priests chanted the ancient Divine Liturgy (Byzantine Eucharist).
The presidents of Belarus, Armenia and Serbia, and at least 11 Russian cabinet ministers and top Kremlin officials attended. Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, was also present.
Alexiy’s coffin lay draped in a green, red and white shroud on a catafalque amid hundreds of white flowers in the center of the cathedral. At its head was the distinctive Orthodox cross with its extra two bars.
Toward the end of the service, top clergy lined up to file past the coffin and kiss the body farewell. Medvedev and Putin followed. Putin, a former KGB spy, paused by the body, crossing himself twice and bowing his head.
Alexiy’s coffin was carried out of the Cathedral over a path of white roses, said to be his favorite flower, to the toll of a somber bell. A black hearse drove through central Moscow to the Epiphany Cathedral, where he was to be laid to rest.
“The number of churches multiplied to 30,000 and the number of monasteries to 700 from 18 (under Alexiy),” said Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, head of the Patriarchy’s department for cooperation with the army and law enforcement forces.
“This is a fantastic number, so fantastic it is difficult to believe, but it is true,” he said.
Alexiy’s opponents say he allowed the church to become a junior partner of the Kremlin when Putin was president, and Alexiy failed to shake off allegations he had links to the Soviet KGB. The church has repeatedly denied this.
Thousands of mourners waited in cold rain outside the vast gold-domed cathedral, reconstructed in the 1990s after being demolished by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
Thousands more lined the route to the 18th-century blue and gold Epiphany Cathedral. Dozens of funeral wreaths of white roses and red carnations crowded the entrance to the cathedral.
“I feel today that a great saintly man has left us. I hope he will pray for Russia when in heaven. I attended his sermons and he was such an approachable and simple man in his everyday life,” pensioner Olga Larchenko said.
Kirill, whose official title is Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, was chosen by a 12-man Holy Synod of top church leaders as interim leader last Saturday.
The Holy Synod will announce on Wednesday the date for convening the Local Council, a large body of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy and laity charged with electing the next Patriarch, the 16th since the title began in 1589.
Writing by Michael Stott; editing by Timothy Heritage