Pope Pleased With New Patriarch

Pope Benedict XVI expressed "joy" on Wednesday with the election of Metropolitan Kirill as the Russian Orthodox patriarch, while church critics complained that public debate about the vote had been suppressed.

Political and religious leaders strove to congratulate Kirill after he was named the church's 16th patriarch on Tuesday night.

Among the first to congratulate him was President Dmitry Medvedev, who called him by telephone late Tuesday night, the Kremlin said in a statement on its web site.

Medvedev said he hoped that the dialogue between church and state would continue and that interconfessional harmony would be strengthened, the statement said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also called Kirill to congratulate him, Interfax reported.

State Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska suggested that Kirill was elected by divine right. "God has made his choice, and for me Kirill's election is a feast, not just for our church but for all of Russia," said Sliska, a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, Interfax reported.

The heads of the country's Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist communities sent congratulatory letters, Interfax said.

Pope Benedict said he hoped Kirill would help lead the Catholic and Orthodox churches to full unity following the historic break of the eastern and western churches in 1054, Reuters reported.

"I assure your holiness of my spiritual closeness and of the Catholic Church's commitment to cooperate with the Russian Orthodox Church," he said in a statement.

The pope said during Wednesday's audience that he had learned the news of the election "with joy."

Long-strained relations between the two churches worsened under the late Patriarch Alexy II, who rejected papal requests to visit Russia and accused the Vatican of poaching Orthodox believers.

Although Kirill complained about Catholic and Protestant missionaries in a speech Tuesday, he is seen as being conciliatory toward other faiths because of his nearly two-decade role as the church's chief diplomat in negotiations with other churches. Kirill met with Pope Benedict in December 2007.

Kirill was elected by a comfortable 72 percent majority by the Local Council, a body of 702 members, two-thirds of them clergy and one-third laymen. The election took place by secret ballot in Christ the Savior Cathedral, where Kirill will be formally installed as patriarch this Sunday.

Church critics expressed concern Wednesday that several web sites critical of the church had been attacked by hackers during the election process.

Alexander Soldatov, editor of Portal-credo.ru, said his site had been down since last Friday. "We are being targeted by denial-of-service attacks," he said.

He said other reformist-minded Orthodox sites were having similar trouble. Among them is Karlovtchanin.com, a Russian-language site based in France, and the site of the Russian Autonomous Orthodox Church, Rpac.ru, he said.

He said he doubted that church officials were to blame and said speculated that Russian government agencies might be responsible.

"The church does not have the resources for such wide-scale attacks. I believe that the special services have been instructed by the Kremlin to keep any criticism under control during this period," Soldatov told The Moscow Times.

His web site was still down Wednesday, operating only on a mirror site at Credo-rating.livejournal.com/.

The Kremlin has rejected similar claims in the past.