Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Constantinople and Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia both served at the funeral of Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, a service also attended by President Dmitri A. Medvedev and Prime Minster Vladimir Putin - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
Medvedev had declared 9 December a national day of mourning. Patriarch Alexei died on 5 December 2008 at the age of 79.
The service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour offered testimony to the Russian Patriarch as a unifier who brought and held together a church that had been brutalised during the Soviet era. After the funeral service, Alexei was taken in a cortege through the Moscow streets and laid to rest at the Epiphany Cathedral.
Patriarch Ilia, who has been undergoing medical treatment, made his first visit to Russia since a war between Russia and Georgia in August over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. At the funeral service, he intoned a Gospel reading in Georgian, over Alexei's open casket, as Medvedev and Putin stood close by. Both Alexei and Ilia had appealed for peace as fighting raged.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, conflicts have also flared between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate over influence in former Soviet territories. Still, Alexei and Bartholomeos pledged to pursue dialogue after a mid-year meeting in Kiev at celebrations marking the 1020th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, which Russian Orthodox mark as the creation of their church.
A third patriarch, Daniel of Romania, attended the funeral, as did dozens of other church dignitaries, many vested in Paschal white, as is the custom in the Orthodox church for clergy funerals.
In a sermon that opened the funeral service, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is now being discussed as one of the main candidates to succeed Alexei, spoke of the late patriarch's efforts to overcome post-Soviet divisions. "[Alexei] always respected the sovereignty of states on the territory of the former USSR, but understood that these divisions cannot divide the peoples' unified system of values," said Kirill.
Patriarch Alexei's efforts were devoted towards saving Russia, Kirill said, but always directed against the use of force. "His Holiness spoke in the language of eternity, understanding that only love can unite people," said Kirill.
Kirill was elected locum tenens (interim leader) of the church by a synod of bishops the day after Alexei's death, something that has increased speculation about his chances of succeeding Alexei.
Reports that Kirill fainted during the funeral were widely circulated in the Russian media, but denied by the Moscow Patriarchate, which said that he felt ill and went to sit down, but had not fainted.
A church council must be convened to elect a new patriarch, and experts on the Russian Orthodox Church have named several other possible candidates to succeed Alexei.
Nikolai Mitrokhin, a historian who has written extensively on the Russian Orthodox Church said that consensus within the church favours Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, who leads the Orthodox Church in Belarus, but his age, 73, and health is a factor against him. Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, the Moscow Patriarchate's property manager, is favoured by authorities, Mitrokhin told Ecumenical News International.
Kirill, he said, is unpopular within the church, but his chances have increased somewhat.
"I still think that Kirill's chances are slim. However, with his appointment as locum tenens they have, clearly, risen greatly – up to about 25 percent," said Mitrokhin.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]