A senior Russian Orthodox leader has said the idea of a meeting between Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict could be moving towards the preparation stage. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the “foreign minister” of the Russian church, made clear that neither a date nor a location for such the long-awaited meeting was under discussion. But given the glacial pace at which progress on this issue is made, even the change in tone from Moscow is worth noting.
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 a slightly Soviet air to the proceedings as bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church voted on Sunday for three candidates to be considered as their new patriarch. Meeting in the gold-domed Christ the Saviour cathedral overlooking the Moskva River, just a few hundred metres from the Kremlin, about 200 metropolitans and bishops had delegates badges dangling from their necks along with their usual pectoral crosses. A Soviet-style “presidium” of 16 top prelates presided over the session in the Hall of Church Councils. The proceedings started with voting for an election committee, a drafting committee and a credentials committee. Journalists covering the session couldn’t help but think of the old communist party conferences.
Frontrunner Metropolitan Kirill made a strong showing in the first round of the Russian Orthodox voting for a new patriarch on Sunday. He won 97 of the 197 votes cast in the Council of Bishops, which picked three candidates for the final voting by the Local Council of about 700 priests, monks and laymen this week. His main rival, Metropolitan Kliment, picked up 32 votes while the third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret, got 16 votes.
The Russian Orthodox Church election of a new patriarch next week is shaping up as a vote for or against Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. Already the acting head of the Church since the death of Patriarch Alexiy II last month, Kirill is the clear frontrunner and the man who other churches — especially the Roman Catholic Church — would like to see take the top post. Those two factors, though, could work against him when the Council of Bishops and the Local Council — the two bodies that conduct the election — meet.
One of the most intriguing questions about the voting for a new Russian Orthodox patriarch on Jan. 27-29 has been answered. Speculation about the succession began as soon as the late Patriarch Alexiy died in December, but it had an unusual extra layer of uncertainty. Orthodox church leaders sometimes elect the top three candidates and then pick the winner by drawing lots. This, they say, lets the Holy Spirit have the final say. So even a strong front-runner could be passed over.
The Russian Orthodox are wasting no time with the election of their new leader to replace the late Patriarch Alexiy. Although Church statutes give them six months to ponder the decision, a Holy Synod meeting today decided to hold a General Council in late January to elect a successor.
The death of Russian Orthodox Patriach Alexiy II and talk about his possible successor got Aleksandras Budrys, a correspondent in our Moscow bureau, to reminiscing about how he covered Alexiy’s election in 1990 for the official news agency TASS. Here’s his account of reporting on religion near the end of communism in Russia:
A Saudi offer to build a large mosque in Moscow has prompted Russian Orthodox organisations to ask for permission to build an Orthodox church in Saudi Arabia. Several western Christian churches have asked for or suggested such reciprocity with Saudi Arabia, which funds mosques abroad but bans any religion but Islam at home. It’s an issue that can only become more pressing if King Abdullah continues to preach interfaith dialogue and tolerance around the globe while not practicing it at home.