Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, an Oxford-educated cleric who served as the Moscow Patriarchate's representative to European organizations in Brussels, has been appointed as head of the Russian Orthodox Church's Department of External Church Relations - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
The appointment was made on 31 March 2009 at the first meeting of the church's synod of bishops chaired by Patriarch Kirill I since his enthronement in February this year.
As metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Kirill himself led the church's external relations department for nearly 20 years until he was elected patriarch on 27 January following the death of Patriarch Alexei II in December.
Anatoly Krasikov, director of the Centre for Religious and Social Studies of the Institute of Europe in Moscow, described Bishop Hilarion as "a vivid personality", and said the decision "is a gain for the church".
"It shows that Kirill is not afraid to have a strong person next to him," Krasikov told Ecumenical News International. He also noted that Kirill had been a strong personality alongside Alexei.
Hilarion, who is aged 42, has a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford, and was also educated as a classical musician and composer. In the 1990s, Hilarion served under Kirill in the external relations department.
He is a member of the central committee of the World Council of Churches, and also serves as the Russian church's bishop of Vienna and Austria.
The synod also appointed the Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, currently the deputy chairperson of the external relations department, to head the new Department of Interrelations of Church and Society. In March, Chaplin expressed vocal support for Pope Benedict XVI's criticism of the use of condoms to stem the spread of HIV.
Commenting in the Russian media, analysts noted that by creating a new department with some functions similar to the external relations department, Patriarch Kirill has ensured that he will remain unquestionably in charge.
In 2008, several prominent priests proposed Hilarion as a candidate to head the Orthodox Church in America, an independent offshoot of the Russian church then hit by high-level financial scandals. Hilarion declined the offer.
Earlier in his ministry, he became embroiled in controversy when he was sent as an assistant bishop to London and came into conflict there with Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, a revered leader of the Russian church in Britain, who died in 2003.
Bishop Hilarion will be watched closely for his handling of relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Critics of Kirill have stepped up their attacks on the new patriarch, who they describe as an agent of Rome.
Krasikov, who reported from the Vatican as a correspondent for the Soviet-era Itar-Tass news agency, dismissed these charges. "It may be the reverse; Benedict may be declared an agent of Kirill," he said. "The Catholics have problems and are counting on support from the Orthodox." Krasikov recalled a conference in 2000 at which Hilarion, then still only a priest, spoke in tough terms about Catholic proselytism in Russia among other issues, while a message from Kirill to the conference was seen as being much more positive.
In other decisions at the synod's meeting, Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, who was Kirill's competitor in the recent elections to the patriarchal throne, was transferred from his post as the patriarchate's property manager to head its publishing department. Observers are interpreting this as a demotion.
Vladimir Legoyda, a layperson and editor of Foma, a glossy church magazine, was appointed chair of a newly created information department.
[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.]