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New Head of Russian Orthodox Church Has Background in Church-State Relations

The Russian Orthodox Church has elected 62-year-old Metropolitan Kirill to serve as its Patriarch. As former head of the Church's foreign relations department, the spiritual leader has expressed his position on church-state relations, an issue raised over the years in reports about Russian religious freedom issued by the U.S. State Department.

A bell on Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral tolled 16 times late Tuesday evening, signaling the election of Metropolitan Kirill as the 16th Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. He received 508 votes from a church council of 700 clergy and laypersons.

Kirill was head of the church's foreign relations department before his selection.

He protested in 2005 when a U.S. State Department report offered anecdotal evidence that the Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a status with the government that approaches official. In a letter to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Kirill wrote that the Russian Orthodox Church is completely separate from the state apparatus, and its priests do not participate in state activities, political parties, or movements.

He reiterated that position in an address to the Church Council before Tuesday's vote, saying the church and state should not interfere in each other's affairs. Nonetheless, he sought the government's legal sanction for church activity in schools and the military.

Kirill says efforts in Russia have so far proven unsuccessful to establish a stable legal basis for teaching the fundamentals of Orthodox culture in public schools, or systematic work of military chaplains.

The head of the Religion and Law Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Roman Lunkin, says Kirill is known as an individual who seeks to dot all of the "i"s in church-state relations in favor of Russian Orthodoxy.

Lunkin says Kirill proposed a law in 2005 for state support of traditional religions, above all Russian Orthodoxy, so that it would receive tax privileges, and that return of church property [seized under Soviet rule] would relate specifically to the Moscow Patriarchate. In effect, says Lunkin, Kirill wants to turn the Orthodox Church into Russia's official church.

In its 2008 religion report, the State Department noted that denominations, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Pentecostals, which are common in the United States, have been denied permission to acquire land for churches in Russia.

In his address Tuesday, Kirill accused some Protestant faiths of radical attempts to change Christian morality. He noted, however, that the Russian Church seeks dialogue with what he refers to as other healthy-minded faiths to fight Godless secularism that dominates Western society.

Sergei Filatov, Director of the Encyclopedia of Modern Religious Life in Russia, says the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad are represented by the Russian Foreign Ministry, a privilege not given to any other denomination. Filatov says Orthodoxy also enjoys special access to institutions of government and state media. He says that in return, the Church gives the Kremlin justification for its controversial policy of "sovereign democracy." That policy has been criticized in the West as a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

Filatov says the arrangement serves the ruling elite, which he also refers to as a clique, which sees in the Russian Church an important instrument to implement what one ideologue has called "sovereign democracy." This, he says, allows the Kremlin to claim Russian social development is incompatible with Western and traditional democratic procedures and standards.

The notion of sovereign democracy was advanced by former president and now Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin.

The Russia Orthodox Church has traditionally been suspicious of the West, particularly Roman Catholicism. The mistrust dates to the split between Eastern and Western Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago. While Kirill has criticized Catholic attempts to proselytize in Russia, analysts say he could eventually meet with the Pope in what would be an unprecedented meeting between the two churches.

Kirill's installation as Patriarch will be broadcast live on Russian State television on February 1.