Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, died on Friday aged 79. The cause of death is not known, but Alexy had been suffering from a heart condition for a long time. President Dmitry Medvedev is cancelling a visit to Italy following the death of the patriarch, returning straight to Moscow from India.
After the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991, Alexy became a major driving force in the resurgence of religion in Russian society. Some critics accused him of being subservient to the post-Soviet Kremlin and turning the Orthodox Church into an instrument of nationalism.
Reacting to Alexy’s death, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency he was shocked by his passing. “I respect him immensely,” said the leader who oversaw the end of the Soviet Union.
White-bearded Alexy II was influential and widely respected in Russia. He often officiated in Masses of national significance, in the presence of political leaders like Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister.
Despite two-thirds of all Russians belonging to his Orthodox Church, Alexy II’s relation with other world religions was tense. He felt the Roman Catholic church was proselytizing among his flock, and famously refused to receive visiting Pope John Paul II. Despite a warming of relations with Rome since the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Alexy continued to see “catholic proselytism” as a problem. The two churches split in the eleventh century.
Alexy II was born Alexei Ridiger, as the son of an Orthodox priest, in Estonia in 1929 when that country was independent. His funeral is expected to take place on Sunday.
A successor to Alexy II will be elected by the church synod within six months.