Russian Othodox Church picks Kirill, better Vatican ties expected

January 27, 2009

The Russian Orthodox Church elected Metropolitan Kirill, 62, as its new leader on Tuesday, succeeding Alexiy II who died last month. The new leader of the 165 million-strong Church, the largest in the Orthodox world,  is seen as a moderniser who may thaw long icy ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

There was speculation before the vote that nationalists, anti-westerners and anti-Catholic forces among the clergy and monks might rally to block Kirill’s election. He seemed to take the possibility seriously enough to strike a conservative tone in recent days. In his address before the vote, Kirill spoke of “the assault of aggressive Western secularism against Christianity” and of “attempts by some Protestant groups to revise the teachings of Christianity and evangelical morality”. He also hit out at Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries, saying they sought converts in post-Soviet Russia — a key point of discord with the Vatican.

(Photo: Metropolitan Kirill before the vote, 27 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

But the vote showed his support was strong. Kirill received 508 votes from a total of 677 valid ballots cast. His rival, conservative nationalist Metropolitan Kliment, 59, polled just 169 votes and a third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, withdrew in favour of Kirill.

Kirill, whose official title is Metropolitan (senior archbishop) of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, is one of the few  senior Russian clerics to have met Pope Benedict. He favours closer ties with the Vatican and observers say he would chart a more independent course for the Russian church.

Hopes of a thaw have been fuelled by Kirill’s meetings with Pope Benedict at the Vatican in 2006 and 2007 and his optimistic comments about better relations with Rome. He even spoke about a thaw in an interview with the pope’s own paper, L’Osservatore Romano.

(Photo: Pope Benedict and Metropolitan Kirill at the Vatican, 7 Dec 2007/L’Osservatore Romano)

But Kirill has also echoed Alexei’s criticisms of Catholics on occasions. On Monday, as delegates gathered for the election, Kirill said in a newspaper interview that there was some way to go before a meeting between the heads of the two churches would be possible. “A meeting between the patriarch and the pope will become possible only when there are conclusive signs of real and positive progress on issues which for a long time have been problematic for our relations,” he said.

Here’s our video of the voting session in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, with a long clip of Kirill addressing the Local Council (in Russian):

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