Church Abroad Leader Dies at 80

APMetropolitan Laurus in May 2007
Metropolitan Laurus, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, died on Sunday in Jordanville, New York. The head of the semi-autonomous branch of the Russian Orthodox Church was 80 years old.

Laurus will perhaps best be remembered for his integral role in the restoration of his church's official links to the Russian Orthodox Church, from which it split in 1927, after the head of the Moscow church, Patriarch Sergy (Stargorodsky), swore loyalty to the Bolshevik government. Throughout the Cold War, the church abroad remained a vocal critic of the Soviet Union.

"In the coming days we will pray in his memory and give thanks for his contribution to the reunification of the foreign and mother churches," Patriarch Alexy II said in a statement on the church's web site. "I believe that his name has been written into the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and that his memory will be one of service to his people."

Born Vasily Shkurla in January 1928 in the then-Czechoslovakian village of Ladomirova, Laurus is said to have entered the monastery at the young age of 11, after receiving the blessing of his father, an impoverished widower.

In 1946, the 18-year-old Laurus emigrated to the United States in order to escape increasing Soviet repression of the church. He rose steadily through the hierarchy of the vehemently anti-Communist ?migr? church, reaching its top position in 2001.

His career culminated in a grand ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin at Christ the Savior Cathedral in May 2007, when he and Alexy signed the Act of Canonical Communion, reuniting the two churches after 80 years of acrimonious relations.

President Putin on Monday offered praise for Laurus and condolences to the heads of both churches in a statement on the Kremlin web site.

"Metropolitan Laurus made an outstanding contribution to the cause of the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion with you," Putin said. "This historic deed will be forever remembered by grateful descendants."

Condolences have also poured in from leaders of other faiths defined in Russian law as "traditional religious communities."

In a letter to the church abroad, Russia's Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar called Laurus "an authoritative cleric, who actively sought responses to the 21st-century challenges for the flock of his church." The Council of Muftis also sent a letter of condolence, Interfax reported.

Metropolitan Laurus will be buried on Friday alongside previous leaders of the church abroad at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville.