MOSCOW (Reuters) Patriarch Alexiy II, a staunch conservative who
revived Russia's Orthodox Church after the collapse of communism and
clashed with Rome over Catholic missionary activity, died on Friday
at the age of 79.
A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy said Alexiy, who led the
powerful church for 18 years and developed close ties with the
Kremlin, died at his residence in Peredelkino, a former Soviet
writers' colony, outside Moscow.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who was on an official visit to India,
hailed the patriarch as "an outstanding religious figure" and
canceled a planned trip to Italy to return to Moscow.
"He was a true shepherd, who throughout his life was an example of
spiritual fortitude and noble human deeds," Medvedev told state
television. "He was always with his flock both in the days of
reprisals and in the period of religious revival."
Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin, an ex- communist
spy who now openly professes his Orthodox faith, said Alexiy was
a "great statesman" who had "done a great deal for the establishment
of a new Russian statehood."
The Church never commented on Alexiy's health and gave the cause of
death as heart failure. But diplomats in Moscow had said the
Patriarch had been suffering from cancer for some time.
In a sign of his importance, Russian state television immediately ran
a film showing highlights from Alexiy's life, accompanied by the
sound of tolling church bells.
Church officials said Metropolitan Juvenali of Krutitsy and Kolomna --
a senior bishop -- may lead the Russian Orthodox until the election
of a new patriarch.
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia since 1990, the Estonian-born
Alexiy was a powerful and influential figure with close links to the
Kremlin but a controversial past and strongly held conservative views
on social issues.
He oversaw a major religious revival in Russia after the collapse of
the Soviet Union, with hundreds of new churches built across the
country, monasteries reopened and seminaries filling with new priests.
But despite repeated church denials, he also failed to shake off
allegations by researchers that he had links to the Soviet KGB
Russia's Orthodox Church is by far the biggest of the churches in the
Eastern Orthodox communion, which split with Western Christianity in
the Great Schism of 1054. It is the majority religion in Russia.
Alexiy was outspoken in his defense of traditional Russian values and
criticized the West over issues such as gay rights.
In a rare visit to western Europe in 2007, Alexiy described
homosexuals as sinners suffering an illness similar to kleptomaniacs
and decried what he said was a rupture between morality and human
Much of Alexiy's reign coincided with the leadership of Polish-born
Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
After the fall of communism in 1989 and the break-up of the Soviet
Union in 1991, relations between the Vatican and Russia's Orthodox
Church were severely strained over accusations that Catholics were
using their newfound freedom to poach souls.
The Vatican denied the accusations but the chill in relations was the
main cause for the failure to arrange a meeting between Alexiy and
the Pope although they came close to arranging a meeting in
a "neutral" venue, such as Vienna.
In Rome, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican's
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, praised Alexiy for
restoring the vitality of Russia's church after communism.
"He was instrumental in fostering the enormous growth of dioceses,
parishes, monasteries and educational institutions which have given
new life to a Church sorely tested for so long," Kasper said.
Alexei Mikhailovich Rediger was born on February 23, 1929 in the
Estonian capital Tallinn, into the family of a Russian Orthodox
priest of German descent.
He later said his family's many pilgrimages to the-then Soviet
Union's religious sites were key to moulding his future path.
In 1953 he graduated from the St Petersburg Spiritual Academy as a
priest. He served in Estonia and Russia before becoming a monk in
1961, taking the vow of chastity necessary for any Orthodox clergyman
seeking a top position in the church.
In 1961 he was appointed Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia and in 1986
was consecrated Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod.