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Theological Notebook: AP and NYT Stories on the Death of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II dies
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Dies at 79

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II dies
Dec 5, 3:23 PM (ET)


MOSCOW (AP) - In his nearly two decades at the head of the world's largest Orthodox church, Patriarch Alexy II oversaw a religious revival in Russia and healed a major church rift, but his death leaves a long-running dispute with the Vatican unresolved.

Alexy's death Friday at age 79 deprives the Russian Orthodox Church of its dominant figure, whose stern, bearded mien gave him an almost medieval aura of inflexible righteousness. He often complained that Roman Catholics were poaching adherents among a people who traditionally would have been Orthodox if atheistic Soviet rule had not impeded them.

Yet he and the church held many discussions with the Vatican, aiming to reach an agreement that would allow the church to accept a papal visit to Russia.

Without Alexy at the helm, the church's initiatives on that question may go dormant for several months. The church's Holy Synod is to choose a placeholder leader on Saturday, but election of a new patriarch is likely to take six months. Metropolitan Kirill, the church's foreign relations chief who has had extensive contact with the Vatican, appears to be one of the top candidates.

The Moscow Patriarchate said Alexy died at his residence outside Moscow, but did not give a cause of death. Alexy had long suffered from a heart ailment, although on Thursday he had appeared comparatively well while conducting services.

His funeral was tentatively slated for Tuesday, according to Russian news agency Interfax, which cited his spokesman Vladimir Vigilyansky.

Alexy became leader of the church in 1990, as the officially atheist Soviet Union was loosening its restrictions on religion. After the Soviet Union collapsed the following year, the church's popularity surged. Church domes that had been stripped of their gold under the Soviets were regilded, churches that had been converted into warehouses or left to rot in neglect were painstakingly restored, and hours-long services on major religious holidays were broadcast live on national television.

By the time of Alexy's death, the church's flock was estimated to include about two-thirds of Russia's 142 million people, making it the world's largest Orthodox church.

But Alexy often complained that Russia's new religious freedom put the church under severe pressure and he bitterly resented what he said were attempts by other Christian churches to build their flocks. These complaints focused on the Roman Catholic Church.

Those tensions aside, Pope Benedict XVI praised Alexy on Friday.

"I am pleased to recall the efforts of the late patriarch for the rebirth of the church after the severe ideological oppression which led to the martyrdom of so many witnesses to the Christian faith. I also recall his courageous battle for the defense of human and Gospel values," the pope said in a message of condolence to the Russian church.

Alexy lived long enough to see another major religious dispute resolved. In 2007, he signed a pact with Metropolitan Laurus, the leader of the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, to bring the churches closer together. The U.S.-based Church Outside Russia had split off in 1927, after the Moscow church's leader declared loyalty to the Communist government.

Alexy successfully lobbied for the 1997 passage of a religion law that places restrictions on the activities of religions other than Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Under his leadership, the church also vehemently opposed schismatic Orthodox churches in neighboring Ukraine, claiming the Ukrainian church should remain under Moscow's control.

A top representative of Russia's Muslims praised Alexy's efforts to restore religion's prominence in post-Soviet Russia.

"All the activities of this man were devoted to unifying our country, developing state-religion relations and the dialogue of Russia's traditional faiths," said Albir Krangov, a deputy chairman of the Muslim Central Spiritual Administration, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency.

In a demonstration of the close relations between church and state, President Dmitry Medvedev canceled plans to travel from India to Italy, so he can return for the funeral.

"He was a great citizen of Russia. A man in whose destiny the whole difficult experience of our country's changes in the 20th century are reflected," Medvedev said.

Under Alexy, the church's influence grew strong enough that some public schools instituted mandatory religion courses - a move that human rights advocates criticized as likely to increase xenophobia.

"The church strengthened nationalism, without a doubt," said Alexander Verkhovsky of the Moscow human rights group SOVA. But he also gave the church under Alexy credit for speaking out against violent, radical nationalists.

The patriarch was born Alexei Mikhailovich Ridiger on Feb. 23, 1929 in Tallinn, Estonia. The son of a priest, Alexy often accompanied his parents on pilgrimages to churches and monasteries, and he helped his father minister to prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Estonia. It was during those visits that Alexy decided to pursue a religious life.

Under Soviet rule, this was not an easy choice. Lenin and Stalin suppressed religion and thousands of churches were destroyed or converted to other uses, such as museums devoted to atheism or, in some cases, stables. Many priests and parishioners were persecuted for their beliefs.

The persecution eased somewhat during World War II, when Stalin discovered that the church could be used as a propaganda tool in the fight against the Nazis. But the Soviet authorities never fully loosened their grip, penetrating the church at the highest levels.

Alexy was ordained in 1950, progressed through the Orthodox hierarchy, and was consecrated Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia in 1961.

The British-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in former Communist countries, has cited research suggesting that Alexy's career may have been aided by assistance he gave the KGB while a young priest in Tallinn. Orthodox Church officials vehemently denied the allegations.


Correspondent Daniella Petroff in Rome contributed to this report.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Dies at 79
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY for The New York Times
Published: December 5, 2008

MOSCOW -- Aleksy II, the Russian Orthodox patriarch who led a revival of the church after the fall of Communism and built close ties to the Kremlin under Vladimir V. Putin, died Friday at his residence in Moscow, news agencies reported.

The patriarch was 79, and the church did not disclose the cause of death. He had long suffered from heart problems.

Aleksy II was named patriarch in 1990, just before the end of the Soviet Union, ascending to the leadership of a church that had often suffered brutal discrimination under the officially atheistic Communists. Under Stalin, many priests were killed or sent to labor camps, and cathedrals were destroyed.

First under President Boris N. Yeltsin and then under Mr. Putin, Mr. Yeltsin’s successor, Aleksy II significantly deepened the role of the church in everyday life -- erecting and restoring cathedrals, introducing Orthodox religious education in public schools and becoming a prominent voice on moral issues. While church attendance has remained low, growing numbers of Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox.

At the same time, the patriarch successfully lobbied the government over the last decade to adopt restrictions on other Christian denominations to impede their efforts to attract adherents in Russia. In the 1990s, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in the West saw Russia as fertile territory and sent missionaries here, spurring a backlash.

Relations between Patriarch Aleksy and the Roman Catholic Church were tense during his tenure over the issue of proselytizing, and as a result, he would not agree to a visit to Russia by Pope John Paul II.

Aleksy II did end another religious dispute, reaching an agreement with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia to bring the churches closer together. The breakaway church had split in 1927, after the Moscow church’s leader declared loyalty to the Communist government.

The agreement was signed in the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which Stalin had leveled and later became the site of a swimming pool.

Mr. Yeltsin had an ambivalent relationship with Aleksy II, but Mr. Putin, the former president and current prime minister, worked closely with the patriarch. Mr. Putin talked publicly about his Russian Orthodox faith and sought to enforce laws to maintain the church’s dominance in Russia.

The church in turn has championed Mr. Putin. Last year, after Mr. Putin selected his close aide, Dmitri A. Medvedev, as his successor as president, Aleksy II praised the decision on national television.
Tags: christianity, church and state, eastern orthodoxy, ecclesiology, ecumenical, europe, new york times, theological notebook

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