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Aleksy, Orthodox Patriarch Of All Russia, Laid To Rest

An Orthodox priest performs last rites for Patriarch Aleksy at Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
In Moscow, the first Russian Orthodox patriarch of post-Soviet times, Aleksy II, has been laid to rest.

The patriarch of Moscow and All Russia died on December 5 at the age of 79 after guiding the world's biggest Orthodox church through two decades of revival following its years in the wilderness under communism.

One measure of how loved and respected Aleksy was, is the fact that some 50,000 ordinary Russians queued to bid farewell during the days his body lay in state at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral.

One of the most personal of the many Russian and international tributes paid to Aleksy this week came from former Russian First Lady Naina Yeltsina.

"He was a wonderful person. You know he has such warm eyes and they were radiating something very good. He had such an aura that it made you like a completely new human being, it seemed like a miracle had happened," she said. "It is simply impossible to appreciate what he has done for Russia. He was a wonderful, warm, spiritual personality."

The fact that the patriarch's funeral was held at Christ the Savior Cathedral is a practical sort of miracle attributable to Aleksy.

The splendid gold-domed church was obliterated, apparently forever, during one of Josef Stalin's drives against religion, and the site turned into a public swimming pool. But largely due to Aleksy's inspiration, the church was completely rebuilt and reopened in 2000.

The cathedral can stand as a symbol of what Aleksy achieved for the Orthodox faith in the tumultuous post-Soviet era, when many Russians were at a loss to orient themselves in a new political and economic world of unknown horizons.

Rebuilding The Church

Under Aleksy's steady hand, Russians turned toward the resurgent church as an anchor of tradition defining the Russian personality. In the eulogy, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, now interim head of the church, referred to this.

"His holiness understood that the Russian Orthodox Church is the only one which safeguards the traditions, the memory, and the values of holy Russia," Kirill said.

Kirill said that the church emerged weak from the years of communist repression, but still had to stand on its feet and face the huge challenges confronting Russia.

"His Holiness expended much effort so that thousands and thousands of churches and monasteries could be built, so that spiritual life could be reborn, so that a dialogue between the church and society could be established, with this same church, which for decades stood in isolation, in a type of social ghetto," Kirill said.

"How hard it was to enter into this new dialogue with the authorities and with society. How complicated it was to show the spiritual beauty and strength of this tradition which formed us all -- not just Orthodox believers, but people of other faiths, as well and people of no faith -- because we were all formed by this system of values that was established in the baptismal font of Kyiv and which the Russian Orthodox Church has carried through the millennium."

A grand renaissance began that has seen some 80 percent of adult Russians today classify themselves as Orthodox adherents.

Aleksy could be fierce in his determination to protect his church. He complained repeatedly that the Roman Catholic Church was "poaching" in its efforts to gain converts in Russia. But in the Vatican he was confronted by a man who was equally determined to defend his faith, the Polish Pope John Paul II. The two spiritual leaders, who resembled each other in the scope of their achievements, never met.

The funeral service was attended by dignitaries including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is considered the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, and Ilia II, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Also present was President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, President Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia, and President Boris Tadic of Serbia.

Following the funeral, Aleksy was buried at the nearby Epiphany Cathedral in Moscow.