MOSCOW (AFP) — Russia on Tuesday was burying its first Orthodox patriarch of post-Soviet times, in an epic funeral attended by archbishops and presidents that ushered in a new era for a reinvigorated Church.
Russia’s political elite, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, joined the ceremony to bid farewell to Patriarch Alexy II, who died on Friday aged 79.
After a service lasting six hours at the Christ the Saviour cathedral, the coffin was borne aloft by mourners in the open air as the heavy toll of bells echoed around a silent Moscow.
A cortege of black cars then took the coffin through the rainy and eerily deserted streets of the Russian capital to Alexy’s final resting place at the Epiphany Cathedral.
"He inherited a church that was weakened by decades of repression…. Now he is leaving behind a church that is strong," the church’s interim head Metropolitan Kirill thundered in an impassioned sermon praising Alexy.
"Even during the most difficult political conflicts, he supported unity and agreemen’s to make peace," he told hundreds of mourners packed inside the vast Christ the Saviour cathedral.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin both kissed the mitre of Alexy to bid farewell. Accompanied by their wives, both men’stook stock-still throughout the service and clutched long yellow candles.
The clergy and choirs sang the Russian Orthodox liturgy, their deep voices filling the cathedral that Alexy helped build on the site of a similar building that was dynamited by Soviet leader Stalin.
Long-bearded priests swung incense around the body of Alexy, whose coffin had been placed on a raised platform surrounded by roses and with an icon and candles at its head.
The service was led by Metropolitan Kirill , the Church’s foreign relations chief, who has been named its interim leader until a new patriarch is chosen.
He is known to millions of Russia’s through his weekly television programme on religion, "The Pastor’s Word," shown every Saturday morning on state television.
The monumental funeral ceremony again underlined the faith’s elevation to de-facto state religion in recent years.
Starting with the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and continuing under Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed a remarkable resurgence after suffering severe repression and destruction of church buildings in Soviet times.
Entertainment broadcasts on television and other events on Tuesday were cancelled by order of Medvedev. The lights decorating central Moscow to celebrate New Year will not be switched on Tuesday evening.
Russian nationwide channels cancelled all advertising and programmes like soap operas and instead broadcast live coverage of the marathon funeral ceremonies and religious programmes.
Hundreds of members of the public, many of whom had queued all night to attend, crammed into the vast cathedral. Few were in tears but doctors were on hand in case anyone was overwhelmed by emotion.
"The patriarch embodies a symbol of Russia. He was one of the great peacemakers of the 20th century, a great shepherd," said one of the public mourners, Olga Vasilyeva.
In a bid to reconcile two leading branches of Orthodoxy, Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I was attending the funeral services for Alexy, despite longstanding tensions between the two.
Despite the icy relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Roman Catholics, the Vatican sent top prelates Cardinal Walter Kasper and Roger Etchegaray to the service.
Among the top Islamic figures present was Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri, the head of Iran’s Islamic Culture and Communications Organisation. Bishop of London Richard Chartres was representing the Anglican Church.
Also attending from abroad were an array of prominent figures from the Slavic world, including Serbia’s President Boris Tadic and even a descendant of murdered Tsar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna.
While rivalry for the leadership could still break out, Kirill, 62, is seen as most likely to succeed Alexy when a new patriarch is chosen at a general synod due within six months.
Alexy became patriarch in 1990, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, and led the Church during a period of revival.