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Thousands bid farewell to Russian patriarch

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Orthodox Christians flocked to pay tribute to Patriarch Alexiy II on Sunday as he lay in state in a Moscow cathedral, thanking him for the revival of the faith after decades of communist repression. Alexiy II, enthroned in 1990 a year before the demise of the Soviet Union, died of heart failure on Friday. He was 79.

Reviving Russia’s main faith, he oversaw the construction of thousands of new churches and raised the prominence of Orthodoxy across the vast nation by building closer ties with the Kremlin.

During his 18 years as leader of the world’s largest Orthodox church, Alexiy helped heal an 80-year rift with a rival faction of the church in the West which had been set up by monarchists fleeing the atheist Bolsheviks.

But Alexiy’s opponents say he allowed the church to become a minor partner of the Kremlin under former President Vladimir Putin. Alexiy failed to shake off allegations he had had links to the Soviet KGB secret police.

The church has repeatedly denied it.

Carrying mourning bouquets, thousands of people queued in cold drizzle across several blocks of central Moscow to Christ the Saviour Cathedral, where Alexiy II will lie in state until his funeral on Tuesday.

“I feel like a bit of my heart has been torn out,” said tearful pensioner Maria Mindova, who had traveled from Ukraine. “No words can express the pain of this loss.”

The reconstruction of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in the tumultuous 1990s was one of Alexiy’s triumphs.

The magnificent 19th century church was first built with popular donations to commemorate Russia’s 1812 victory over Napoleon’s invasion. It was demolished under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and a swimming pool was built on the site.

The coffin of Patriarch Alexiy lies in state in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, December 6, 2008. The Russian Orthodox Church chose Metropolitan Kirill as an interim leader on Saturday after the death of Patriarch Alexiy II, a move that could open the way for more cooperation with Catholics. REUTERS/Pool

Inside the huge, gold-domed, restored cathedral, Kirill, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, acting as the interim head of the Russian Orthodox Church, conducted a two-hour service at Alexiy’s coffin as patient mourners waited outside.


It was in this cathedral that Alexiy and Metropolitan Laurus, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, signed a unification document in May last year.

“I have relatives abroad ... and we can now receive communion from one and the same chalice, which we were not allowed to do before,” said mourner Anastasia Grekova.

Alexiy is to be buried on Tuesday at Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral, where the relics of his patron saint are stored.

The next patriarch has to be chosen within six months. Observers said there were four main possible successors, including Kirill.

Key issues in choosing the new patriarch will be relations with the state and the Catholic church. Kirill is seen as a reformer on both points.

He has been relatively open to the idea of building stronger ties with the Vatican, and is seen as a proponent of a more independent partnership with the state.

Pope Benedict remembered Alexiy in his regular Sunday address, saying to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.

“We join our Orthodox brothers in prayer to commend his spirit unto the goodness of the Lord, so that he will be welcomed in His kingdom of light and peace.”

Alexiy had criticized the Catholic church for trying to win converts in the east. He is credited by many Russians with helping to revive Orthodoxy and church attendance in the moral and spiritual vacuum after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

President Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree banning entertainment on television, radio and in public places on Tuesday, the day of the funeral.

U.S. President George W. Bush offered his condolences.

“Alexiy became patriarch at a time when Russia was in transition and during his term in office spiritual faith in Russia experienced an astounding revival after years of repression under communism,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Ralph Boulton