Surprise: Metr Kirill is the new head of the MP

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian Orthodox Church chose Metropolitan Kirill as an interim leader on Saturday after the death of Patriarch Alexiy II, a move that could open the way for more cooperation with Catholics.

Kirill, the Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, is an articulate public speaker and heads the Church’s department for external relations. Most Russians see him as the public face of the Church, frequently appearing on television.

A group of 12 senior clergy, the ruling body known as the Holy Synod, selected Kirill by secret ballot at the patriarchal residence in the village of Peredelkino outside Moscow.

“One of the most blessed decisions taken by the synod was the selection of the interim leader of the church … the Metropolitan of Smolensk, Kirill,” Father Vladimir Vigilyansky, chief spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, said in comments broadcast live on Vesti television.

Patriarch Alexiy, who revived the Orthodox Church after the collapse of communism, died on Friday of heart failure at the age of 79.

The next Patriarch has to be chosen within six months and observers said four main candidates were in the running, including Kirill.

The main issues in choosing the new Patriarch will be Church relations with the state and the Catholic Church. Kirill, 64, has been a reformer on both matters.

He has been relatively open to the idea of building stronger ties with the Vatican, and some observers say he is a proponent of a more independent partnership with the state. Alexiy strengthened ties with the government under former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.