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Praise and Criticism for Influence of Russian Orthodox Patriarch

Thousands of mourners have bid farewell to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, eulogized at his Moscow funeral as a man of global significance who spread his great devotion far beyond the borders of Russia. But millions of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians see Russian Church influence in their country as a form of imperialism.

Moscow's massive Christ the Savior Cathedral was not big enough to hold the many thousands of mourners who stood under rainy skies for hours to pay their respects to Patriarch Alexei II. Hundreds inside included Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Belarusyn President Alexander Lukashenko, as well as the leaders of Moldova, Serbia, Armenia, and the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Alexei's funeral service was held in the cathedral that he helped rebuild more than 60 years after the original structure was blown up under former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

In his eulogy, the patriarch's interim replacement, Metropolitan Kirill, praised Alexei as a man who took a church weakened after decades of atheistic communist rule and turned it into an institution that stands with the people. Referring to Alexei's title as Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus - the ancient state that ruled what today are Russia, Belarus and Ukraine - the Metropolitan said Alexei used the power of his devotion to shape the unity of Rus and with it the unity of historic Russia.

The Metropolitan said Alexei understood that the value of Holy Rus - with its stress on the sacred, on beauty and a righteous life - represents a mighty pillar of modern human civilization.

The golden age of Rus was 1,000 years ago and the empire, which was ruled from Kyiv, the modern capital of Ukraine, collapsed by the 13th century as a result of invasions and internal splits. Over the centuries, the territories of Rus gave rise to three distinct cultures, languages and ethnicities - Russian, Belarusyn and Ukrainian.

The head of the Religion and Law Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Roman Lunkin, told VOA that Russian Orthodox leaders perpetuate, what he calls, the myth of Holy Rus because it allows them to be heroes of a Rus revival. The idea of revival appeals to many Russians and also coincides with a Kremlin foreign policy that seeks control over former republics of the Soviet Union.

Lunkin said this mythological Rus has special qualities that make the ancient state different from all other countries of the world, and therefore make Russia unique.

But Lunkin said if Russia is separated from Rus, then Russia will no longer appear to be such an ideal country, but rather one that has its share of problems, including problems within the Orthodox Church. As a result, he said, Russia will become just another European country with its own social economic and spiritual difficulties.

In Kyiv, members of the Ukrainian Parliament observed a moment of silence for Alexei. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine is split between millions who recognize the Moscow Patriarchate, and millions of others who want worldwide Orthodoxy to recognize a separate Kyiv Patriarchate. Bishop Yevstratiy is spokesman for the independent Ukrainian church.

The bishop said that without Kyiv and the history of ancient Rus, the continued existence of any Russian empire is impossible, whether it's the Czarist Empire, the Soviet, or a modern quasi-liberal, quasi-authoritarian one that Russian leaders are seeking to build today.

Patriarch Alexei's body was driven through the streets of Moscow in a Cadillac hearse from Christ the Savior Cathedral to the Epiphany Cathedral where he was buried following a another ceremony attended only by clergy.