The Russian Orthodox Church has overwhelmingly elected Metropolitan Kirill as its new leader, succeeding the late Patriarch Aleksy II, the shepherd of the church’s rebirth following decades of militant Soviet atheism.
Kirill, the church’s long-standing external relations director, defeated Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk in a secret ballot by the Local Council, an electoral body made up of more than 700 clergy and laypeople from Russian Orthodox parishes across Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and elsewhere.
Metropolitan Isidor, announcing the result, said Kirill had won 508 votes to 169 for Kliment. The other final candidate, Belarusian Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, had dropped out of the race and asked his supporters to back Kirill.
The January 27 poll took place in Moscow’s gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
"Receiving this manifestation of God's will from your hands, I ask for your indulgence of my weaknesses," Kirill said after the vote. "I ask you to help me with your wise advice. I ask you to stand next to me while I carry out my patriarch's duties. But more than anything, I ask for your prayers."
He will be installed February 1 as the 16th Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.Close Ties With Kremlin
The first election of a patriarch since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 comes at a time of growing popularity in Russia for the church, which has enjoyed close ties with the Kremlin under former President Vladimir Putin, now prime minister. Signs of those relations were on display last month at Aleksy’s funeral, when both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev kissed the patriarch during his lying-in-state.
I ask you to help me with your wise advice. I ask you to stand next to me while I carry out my patriarch's duties. But more than anything, I ask for your prayers.
Kirill is seen as more inclined to seek some degree of independence from the Kremlin. But according to Romano Scalfi, an Italian Catholic priest and respected expert on Russian Orthodoxy, Kirill is unlikely to make any break with the church’s traditional role as faithful servant to the Russian state.
“Given this long tradition [of subservience to the Kremlin], it’s unlikely that this tradition could be quickly broken,” Scalfi told RFE/RL before the vote. “It’s not like under the tsars, when they were free to do what they wanted. I think a certain pro-state line, and therefore a pro-Putin line, is inevitable.”
Known to millions of people across Russia and beyond, Kirill is seen as an advocate of better ties with the Roman Catholic Church. In December 2007, the 62-year-old from St. Petersburg held a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, with which the Orthodox churches split in the "Great Schism" of 1054.
“He has a very good understanding of the church and its relations with other states. He is well prepared for the great mission of being patriarch,” Scalfi said. “He’s very ecumenical, so I believe in terms of relations with Catholics and others, he has every chance of continuing an agenda that has recently been strengthened, both by the [previous] patriarch as well as by the [Catholic] Church.” 'Problematic' Issues
But on the eve of the vote, Kirill said in a newspaper interview that there was a way to go before a meeting between the next patriarch and pope would be possible. He cited “issues which for a long time have been problematic” in their ties, recalling the frequent Russian Orthodox accusations of Roman proselytizing in Russia, where the Catholic Church is excluded from enjoying official status.
On January 25, a senior Bishops’ Council had selected Kirill, Kliment, and Filaret as the three final candidates for the vote by the Local Council. Recent weeks had seen intense lobbying by the contenders, with Kirill accused by some of engaging in smear tactics reminiscent of political campaigns.
"It was tense, dirty, and aggressive," Aleksandr Soldatov, editor of the Orthodox affairs website credo.ru, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "On various blogs and Internet forums, Metropolitan Kirill's supporters published compromising material against his opponents and other possible candidates."
From breaking down, Kirill will now be called upon to build up.
Can he turn the church into a genuine force for spiritual and moral renewal, something along the lines of what the late writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn augured for post-Soviet Russia? Or will the biggest Orthodox church -- with some 165 million faithful worldwide -- remain largely subservient to the Kremlin’s will to wield it as an ideological tool for an emerging nation?
Therein may lie Kirill’s greatest challenge.