(MOSCOW – AFP) — The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, has died, a church spokesman told AFP on Friday. He was 79.
“Yes, he has died,” a church spokesman said by telephone after Russian news agencies said the patriach died earlier Friday at his residence outside Moscow. There was no immediate word on the cause of death.
Within minutes of the announcement of Alexy II’s death, state television broadcast video footage of him and officials past and present voiced their condolences.
“I am shocked,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president who held power in the Kremlin when Alexy II became the head of the church in 1990.
“It is hard to find words. I had immense respect for him,” Interfax news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying.
“This is an irretrievable loss for all Russian Orthodox people, wherever they live,” Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of parliament, said.
Patriarch Alexy II was an establishment figure who restored the authority of the church after decades of Soviet repression.
Born Alexei Ridiger, Alexy II made his ecclesiastical career at a time when the church was controlled by Soviet authorities before forging an alliance with the new Russian state under presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
The patriarch was an impressive character with a benign expression and moral authority among millions of Russian believers but his personality was always locked in by the deeply hierarchical nature of his role.
Alexy II took stances on foreign policy issues that often matched the Kremlin line, criticising NATO strikes against Yugoslavia, the US-led war in Iraq and defending the rights of ethnic-Russians in the former Soviet Union.
But his role in the international arena was marked above all by wariness of Catholics, whom he accused of “proselytism,” and he refused repeatedly to meet Roman Catholic pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI.
The main reason for the row was a property dispute between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Ukraine, where the Greek Catholic church, which was banned by Stalin and dispossessed, took back hundreds of parishes from the Orthodox church at the beginning of the 1990s.
The creation of four Catholic dioceses in Russia also created suspicion among Orthodox leaders. Several rounds of negotiations between Catholic and Orthodox officials failed to smooth differences.
He was also, however, a unifying Orthodox figure who helped engineer a union with a branch of the Russian Orthodox church that separated from Moscow-based church authorities after the 1917 Soviet revolution.
Ridiger was born on February 23, 1929 in then independent Estonia, the son of an Orthodox priest. He worked in two cathedrals after Estonia became part of the Soviet Union and entered a religious seminary under Stalin.
He married but then divorced in order to become a monk in 1961 during the anti-religion campaigns launched by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He was soon promoted to become an Orthodox bishop.
Ridiger had a successful career under Leonid Brezhnev at a time when the Orthodox church was effectively controlled by the KGB and dissident priests were thrown into jail.
The future patriarch conformed and rose rapidly through church ranks, becoming number two in the influential external affairs section of the patriarchate.
Despite his ties with the Communist establishment, he made some efforts to curb Soviet repression, including keeping a famous convent in Estonia open despite the threat of closure.
He became patriarch in 1990, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union.
At the time, Ridiger was seen as more in touch with the reforms to the Soviet system being undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev than another candidate, metropolitan Filaret, considered even closer to the Communist regime.
The new patriarch remained prudent after the fall of the Communist system, ruling out investigations against church officials accused of links to the Soviet secret services.
In close collaboration with Yeltsin and Putin, Alexy II used his close relations with the authorities to rebuild the influence of the Orthodox church.
Seminaries were restored, churches were rebuilt and church finances were greatly boosted by income from customs duties granted by the Russian government during the 1990s.
The lavish Christ the Saviour cathedral in central Moscow, which was destroyed under Stalin and replaced by an open-air swimming pool, was rebuilt in full splendour during Alexy II’s patriarchate.
Religion gained influence in schools, prisons, hospitals and the armed services.
Within the church, Alexy II was never an innovative leader and opposed himself to liberal policies but he also rejected deeply anti-Semitic and nationalistic currents in religious thinking.
The patriarch died at a time when the Russian Orthodox church had not yet determined its preferred status, as an institution closely allied with political authorities or a church more in tune with the Russian people.