The question of who the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be has produced heated debates about political and religious power.
Sophia Kishkovsky writes for ENI from Moscow: The Archbishops Council of the Russian Orthodox Church meets on 25 and 26 January 2009 to elect candidates for Patriarch, and the local council of the entire church follows from 27 to 29 January.
Since Patriarch Alexei II died on 5 December, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's external church relations section, who was elected a locum tenens, or interim patriarch, by the Synod of Bishops on 6 December, has been regarded as the leading candidate.
He drew much attention for his impassioned, some said almost political, sermon at Alexei's funeral, held at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with President Dmitri Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and hundreds of other dignitaries in attendance.
Russian-language Internet, which has a plethora of Russian Orthodox news sites and forums, has been buzzing about the outcome. On some sites, where ecumenism is frowned upon, Kirill has become a flashpoint for criticism over his involvement in the quest for church unity.
On 31 December Pravaya.ru published an open letter taking Metropolitan Kirill to task for ties with the Roman Catholic Church. The letter asked him to renounce statements it says he had made in the past. First among them, states the letter: "We ask you to disavow the assertion that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are divided parts of One Church, and affirm that in the true sense the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is only the Orthodox Church."
The letter cites an interview Kirill gave in 1991, in which he stated that no ecumenical council, similar to those that established church doctrine in the early centuries of Christianity, has been convened since the division of the churches to formally condemn the resulting religions as heretical.
In a defence of Kirill published on 13 January in response to the open letter, Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria cited interviews, sermons and documents in which Kirill disavowed the "branch theory" of Christianity.
"The goal of branding someone with whom one does not agree as a heretic is not, of course, to find the truth, but to blacken one's opponent," Hilarion wrote. "When this is done on the threshold of a local council that will be electing the Patriarch, and in regards to one of the possible candidates, then it is clear this is not a search for truth but a sinful means of fighting an undesirable person."
The delegates named by each diocese to attend the local council, and the process of selecting them have also stirred heated debated. It has been noted that bureaucrats and others with close ties to power, are among the delegates, including the governor of the Omsk region, the wife of the governor of Primorsky Krai, on Russia's Pacific coast, and a number of businessmen.
Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, the Moscow Patriarchate's property manager, who are seen as less enthusiastic on church unity than Kirill, are regarded as the leading candidates. Previously Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk had been seen as the favourite, but there are concerns about his health.
In recent days new names have also been bandied about on Web sites as alternative candidates, Among them, Archbishop Rostislav of Tomsk, who is praised for his modesty and piety.
Ukrainian bishops caused a furore in late December when they said they would support Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev as a candidate, although candidates are not formally named until the archbishops meet in Moscow. On 17 January at a meeting in Kiev, Vladimir told the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's delegates to the local council he does not want to be a candidate. Some analysts have said this might open up Ukrainian votes at the local council to bargaining in exchange for the church's autonomy from Moscow.
With acknowledgements to Ecumenical News International - www.eni.ch