Reading Tea Leaves For Sign of Patriarch's Successor

ReutersA priest attending a service in honor of Patriarc h AlexyA priest attending a service in honor of Patriarch Alexy II in Moscow's Danilovsky Monastery on Friday. Alexy, who had led the Russian Orthodox Church since 1990, died Friday morning at his residence outside Moscow.
For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church will begin the process of choosing a new leader.

The church's ruling body, the Holy Synod, will convene Saturday in Moscow to choose an interim patriarch, the Moscow Patriarchate said in a statement Friday, just hours after the death of Patriarch Alexy II.

Church insiders and experts said there are two frontrunners to succeed Alexy: the often outspoken and independent-minded Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad; and Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, believed to be the Kremlin's preferred successor.

According to the Russian Orthodox Church's charter, the 12-member Holy Synod must elect a Locum Tenens, or interim head, from among its members.

The Local Council, comprised of all bishops and elected representatives of clergy and laity, must then be called within six months to elect a new patriarch in a closed session.

The procedure for the election is not spelled out in the charter and is defined by the council itself before the vote.

Alexy, who was elected by secret ballot in 1990, never publicly christened a preferred successor, leaving church observers little choice but to read tea leaves and scour for signs of how the balance of power is shifting between leading bishops.

During President Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration in May, Metropolitan Kliment sat in the front row next to Alexy, while Metropolitan Kirill was relegated to the back of the Kremlin's Anreyevsky Hall, noted one religious scholar.

Kliment's front-row seat at the event could indicate that he has the Kremlin's blessing, the scholar said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The fact that then-President Vladimir Putin appointed Kliment to the Public Chamber in 2005 could also mean he is favored by the Kremlin, said Alexander Soldatov, a Russian Orthodox Church researcher who runs the web site Credo.ru.

Kliment, 59, chairs the chamber's commission on cultural and spiritual heritage and is head of the Moscow Patriarchate's administration.

Should Kliment prevail, the church is likely to tightly follow the Kremlin line, a trend that became increasingly strong during Putin's eight years in office, church researchers said.

Metropolitan Kirill, meanwhile, is one of the church's most prominent clergyman and is known for his often controversial public statements.

In April 2006, Kirill announced that the Western concept of human rights contradicts Orthodox teachings and unveiled a church-sponsored human rights platform proclaiming the primacy of religious tradition over individual freedoms.

"He is a more passionate leader who will try to thrust his own views onto the Kremlin," Soldatov of Credo.ru said.