Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II Dead at 79

MTRussian Orthodox Church clerics and believers standing around the casket of Patriarch Alexy II during a public viewing Sunday in Christ the Savior Cathedral.
Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church who oversaw a post-Soviet religious revival amid allegations of being a proponent of Russian nationalism and a former KGB agent, died Friday outside the city, the Moscow Patriarchate said. He was 79 years old.

The church said Alexy died at his residence in the town of Peredelkino in the Moscow region, but did not give a cause of death. Alexy had long suffered from heart problems.

During his 18-year leadership, the church was transformed from an organization that was first persecuted and then tightly controlled by Soviet authorities to an assertive symbol of nationhood, embraced by much of the country's population and political elite.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Alexy's death a tragedy.

"He was a luminous man," Putin said Friday during a meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan in the White House. "His death is a great loss."

President Dmitry Medvedev, who was on an official visit to India when the news broke, called Alexy a "great citizen" who "suffered all the critical tests the country experienced during the 20th century."

"The soaring of the Russian Orthodox Church, the affirmation of freedom of conscience and confession are tied directly to his name," Medvedev said in a statement posted on the Kremlin's web site Friday.

Medvedev added that Alexy was also an advocate of reconciliation and consensus in his ethnically and religiously diverse country.

An estimated two-thirds of Russia's 142 million citizens are adherents of the church, making it the world's largest national Orthodox church.

Albir Krangov, a deputy chairman of the Muslim Central Spiritual Administration, praised Alexy's efforts to restore the prominence of religion in the country.

"All of this man's activities were devoted to unifying our country, developing state-religion relations and the dialogue between Russia's traditional faiths," RIA-Novosti quoted Krangov as saying.

The country's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, said in a letter that Alexy was "a man of moral principles who never made compromises on key issues of faith."

Yet critics maintain that Alexy could have done more to reconcile the country with its past and its religious and ethnic minorities.

During the two Chechen wars, he was a vocal supporter of Moscow's campaign in the North Caucasus. State television frequently showed priests blessing tanks and heavy weaponry.

Russian Orthodox Church / Reuters
An undated photo of young Alexei Ridiger, long before he became Alexy II.

The close ties between the church and the military and other state security bodies continue to this day. In a ceremony at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow last fall, priests chanted prayers in honor of the Defense Ministry's 12th Main Directorate, responsible for the storage and maintenance of the country's nuclear arsenal. And in 2002, Alexy himself blessed Moscow's Church of St. Sofia of God's Wisdom, the official church of the Federal Security Service.

Alexy was directly involved in two of the country's most difficult political periods in the 1990s, acting as an intermediary between the sides in both the failed putsch against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and then between President Boris Yeltsin and the parliament during the constitutional crisis of 1993.

He was also an outspoken traditionalist on social issues.

In October 2007, he told the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly that homosexuality "is an illness, a distortion of a human being."

Alexy was born Alexei Mikhailovich Ridiger on Feb. 23, 1929, in Tallinn, the capital of then-independent Estonia, where his father, Mikhail Ridiger, worked as an engineer. Ridiger, who is said to have been of either Swedish or German descent, was a devout Orthodox Christian who had fled Revolutionary Petrograd in 1917.

Ordained as a priest in 1950, Alexy rose through the Orthodox hierarchy, becoming Bishop of his native Tallinn in 1961 and Metropolitan of Novgorod and Leningrad in 1986.

Felix Corley, a British scholar on Eastern European religious affairs, said documents kept in Estonian archives show that Alexy was recruited by the Soviet secret police just before becoming bishop.

"It was quite clear that the KGB saw him as a high-flier, destined for high things," Corley said Friday in a telephone interview from London.

The church has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Corley said the church could not really choose someone without KGB ties because virtually all leading clergymen had been recruited. "You could not get a leading position in any [Soviet] religious organization without working for the KGB," he said.

Corley added that, nevertheless, Alexy was probably a "sincerely faithful man who wanted to see his church flourish."

"There is evidence that he saved some churches during the onslaught on religious buildings in the early 1960s, including Tallinn's [Alexander] Nevsky Cathedral," he said.

When he was elected Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia in 1990, Alexy was the first church leader to be chosen without government pressure.

Russian Orthodox Church / Reuters
Patriarch Alexy II leading a service in the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral on Thursday, the day before his death.

He first concentrated on reclaiming a massive amount of church property that had been nationalized by the officially atheist Soviet Union.

His leadership was also characterized by strife with rival churches, most notably the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, whose independence is not recognized by Moscow, and with the Roman Catholic Church, which Alexy accused repeatedly of seeking to convert Russians.

But in what has been seen as a significant improvement of interchurch relations, Alexy recently oversaw the reconciliation with the Orthodox Church Outside Russia after more than 80 years of bitter separation following the 1917 Revolution.

Ties with the Catholic Church also improved somewhat, and it was reported this fall that a meeting between Alexy and Pope Benedict XVI was planned for late next year.

Corley said Alexy refused to bring the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia under his patriarchate's control after they were recognized as independent by Moscow after the August war with Georgia.

A spokesman of the patriarchate said Friday that he could not comment immediately on this.

Alexy had been visibly in poor health recently, yet he kept up his busy schedule.

In the fall of 2002, the patriarch was hospitalized during a visit to the southern town of Astrakhan, after which national media reported that he had suffered a massive heart attack.

In the spring of 2007, speculation was rife that Alexy had died or was deathly ill after he failed to attend the funeral of former President Boris Yeltsin.

But afterward, the patriarch lashed back with a rare show of humor, "You can see that I feel healthy, I am serving, I am alive," he was quoted as saying.

Only last week, Alexy had returned from Munich, Germany, where he underwent a medical checkup and met with local church representatives.

"He celebrated the Liturgy with us last Sunday, and he was in a good state," Konstantin Litvichenko, a novice at the Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Munich, said by telephone Friday.

Litvichenko said the patriarch had regularly visited doctors in Munich.

The church's ruling body, the Holy Synod, which convened, scheduled Alexy's funeral for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Interfax reported. Alexy will be buried in Epiphany Cathedral in Moscow, according to his will, the news agency said.

A requiem for Alexy will be performed in the Christ the Savior Cathedral on Tuesday, where his body has been laying since Saturday night to allow Orthodox believers and others to pay their respects to the church leader, Interfax reported.

Thousands of people attended the cathedral Sunday morning to pray for Alexy.

Staff Writers Svetlana Osadchuk and Francesca Mereu contributed to this report.