The Church After Alexy II

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The death of Patriarch Alexy II, the spiritual leader of more than 110 million Russian Orthodox Church members, marks the end of an epoch. Alexy led the church through the difficult transition from the end of Soviet regime to an era of greater religious freedom.

Now thoughts are turning to his successor, who will be chosen within six months. Who is likely to replace Alexy, and how will his agenda be different?

Will the new patriarch be a figure like Alexy who straddled two eras, or will he bring the church -- and to a certain degree the entire country -- fully into the 21st century?

The four names being mentioned most often are: Metropolitan Filaret, the patriarchal exarch of Belarus; Metropolitan Yuvenali, the chairman of the canonization commission of the Holy Synod; Metropolitan Kirill, the head of the external relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate; and Metropolitan Kliment, the patriarchate's administrator.

Other candidates may emerge, of course. But it is likely that Alexy's successor will be one of these four -- and even more likely that it will be one of the last two.

Metropolitans Filaret and Yuvenali have only an outside chance, most observers suggest. Filaret, 73, a leading theologian and respected scholar, has been the patriarchal exarch for Belarus since 1989. It is hard to say if this is a negative or positive factor. It would help cement the two countries together, something the Kremlin would clearly like. But on the other, it might offend some in Russia itself who would view him as somehow less Russian because of his Belarussian roots.

Yuvenali, 73, has attracted much attention in recent years for his role in leading the commission on canonization, which among other things has canonized Tsar Nicholas II and others killed by the Soviets.

But a more important qualification is that his metropolitan see includes the parishes and monasteries of the Moscow region. This has brought him into close contact with many post-Soviet leaders as well as making him a true insider in the patriarchate itself.

But Yuvenali has some health problems, which probably means that Alexy's successor will be either Kirill or Kliment. For almost two decades, Kirill, 63, head of the powerful external affairs department of the patriarchate, has been the leading spokesman for the church in Russia and abroad. He has been described as No. 2 in the church hierarchy and the favorite to succeed Alexy. He has his own radio and television programs and has been an active participant in debates over human rights. Kirill rejects the idea that there is such a thing as universal human rights, and he favors instructing Russian schoolchildren in Orthodoxy. And he has not been averse to taking sides in political issues, advocating a more active role for the church in Russia's political and social life.

His high public profile and decisive character has won him accolades. Kirill is thought to be close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. He is on particularly good terms with Medvedev's religiously active wife, Svetlana. His courage in taking clear positions for so many years has made him popular in the church and Russian society in general.

Kliment has served as church administrator for several years, a key post in controlling the activities of the patriarchate. He has three obvious drawbacks from the point of view of senior churchmen and possibly the political elite as well. First, Kliment does not have a high public profile, and thus he cannot play the kind of role that Alexy did as a church diplomat or a supporter of the regime. Second, his position on many religious questions is far more liberal than Kirill's. For example, he has said he favors teaching Islam in schools that are located in the country's Muslim-dominated regions rather than requiring them to study Orthodoxy. Third, because he is younger than Kirill, Kliment would likely serve as patriarch for a much longer period of time. This causes fear in the hierarchy that Kliment might take the church in new, unexpected directions.

There is at the moment no consensus on who should succeed Alexy, but Kirill's conservative defense of the connection between Russian Orthodoxy and Russian identity may make his candidacy the most attractive to his fellow bishops and to the government as well.

Leonid Sevastyanov is general director of the Moscow-based StratinvestRu and a consultant to the Moscow Patriarchate.