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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.
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.
Seated in the middle of this "presidium," Metropolitan Kirill -- the acting patriarch and frontrunner for the top post -- added to the atmosphere by chairing the meeting with a distinctively firm hand. But there were differences, of course. Voting for the three candidates was secret. And when it came time to announce the results of the vote, there was no official stamp to validate the protocol.