A handful of clergymen who make up the Russian Orthodox Church's governing body have selected a man regarded as a steady advocate of greater independence from the state to serve as interim leader until a wider synod picks a successor to Patriarch Aleksy II, according to RFE/RL's Russian Service and agency reports.
The 12 bishops who make up the Holy Synod made the choice of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad at the patriarch's residence in Peredelkino, outside Moscow.
"By a secret ballot, His Holiness Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill was elected patriarchal guardian," the church said on its website.
The interim leader should serve until a broader synod that includes clergy and lay people makes its choice within six months.
But the Holy Synod carries considerable weight in the process, and some observers suggest the interim pick, known as the "guardian of the throne," stands a good chance of becoming patriarch.
Since Aleksy's death, many observers saw Kirill and Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk among the three or four most likely picks as a permanent successor. Metropolitan Yuvenaly, who heads the Moscow diocese, was also named among the favorites.
The Kremlin will almost certainly seek to exert influence over the selection process, particularly as advocates of close ties to the government vie against those who think the church should operate with greater independence.
Kirill, who has amassed considerable contacts in his role directing the Russian Orthodox Church's external affairs, could seek reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church, a position that stokes fierce debate within the church but could please the Kremlin.
He has spoken warmly of ties between his church and the Russian Church Abroad since their historic reunion in May 2007.
Kirill is seen by most as a staunch advocate of increased authority for the church but by some critics as a renegade who is incautious in his public statements.
In August 2007, he drew the ire of civic leaders in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan by suggesting that a word that traditionally describes only ethnic Russians ("russky") should be used for all Russian citizens. He called the term "rossiyanin," which refers to Russian citizens but not necessarily to ethnic Russians, was "artificial."
End Of Aleksy Era
The gathering of bishops also confirmed funeral arrangements for the late patriarch, who led the church for 18 years before his death of heart failure on December 5.
Aleksy was to lie in state at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was rebuilt under his patriarchate, before being buried at the Epiphany (Bogoyavlensky) Cathedral on December 9.
Aleksy was being mourned in solemn tributes by the resurgent ranks of Orthodox believers in Russia, as well as abroad, and hundreds of red and white roses were left at the patriarch's Moscow office one day after his death.
He is widely hailed as a moderate among Russians and a uniter who ensured the church did not run afoul of the Kremlin and resisted the temptation to tack toward fundamentalism in the 1990s.
Polls show Orthodox believers to be a strong majority in Russia, a far cry from the situation that Aleksy inherited in 1990, when there were thought to be hardly more than a dozen fully functioning parishes.
President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have led tributes to Aleksy, who became patriarch in 1990, for his role in Russian life after the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist rule.
Aleksy entered seminary during Stalin's reign of terror and ascended through church ranks in the 1970s, a time when the KGB mostly controlled the church and rebel clerics were imprisoned.
RFERL: with additional agency reporting.
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.