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NEW YORK — Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who shepherded his church through the rubble of communism but was unable or unwilling to heal a longstanding breach with the Catholic Church, died Friday (Dec.5). He was 79.
Alexy, the spiritual leader to more than 100 million Christians around the world, died at his Moscow residence of undisclosed causes, church officials said.
Elected patriarch in June 1990, Alexy had presided over the fall of communism and the corresponding influx of foreign missionaries into Russia, which he harshly criticized. Last year, he oversaw the end of an 80-year schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which had split with Moscow during the Soviet era.
Under his leadership, the battered and repressed Russian Orthodox Church re-emerged as a vital national institution. Long-neglected church buildings were restored to their former glory and hundreds of new houses of worship and educational institutions were built throughout the country and abroad.
“He led the church from a state of almost complete annihilation into the resurrection of the Russian church,” said the Rev. Joseph Kryukov, who helps oversee Russian Orthodox parishes in the United States. “When he became patriarch, there were only 18 monasteries across the Soviet Union; now only in Russia and Ukraine, there are over 700. There are thousands of priests and monks serving the Russian Orthodox Church in all the corners of Russia and abroad.”
Born Alexy Mikhailovich Ridiger in Estonia in 1929, he rose quickly through the church ranks, despite persecution of clergy by Soviet leaders. By 35, he had been promoted to archbishop.
His rapid ascension was regarded with suspicion by members of the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, also known as the Church Abroad, who insisted for years after the fall of the Soviet Union that reunification would be impossible until clergy who had advanced under communism were replaced.
But Alexy’s commitment to unifying the fractured church ultimately won most of them over, prompting the reconciliation between the Moscow church and the exiled church last year.
“He was constantly calling the church to unity and brotherly love and inter-communion,” said the Rev. Seraphim Gan, a spokesman for the Church Abroad. “I met with him for the first time in 2000, long before any negotiations began, and when most people in the Church Abroad were saying that he was a KGB agent or something, I saw something completely different: a true pastor who was concerned for his flock and for the church as a whole.”
During Alexy’s 18-year tenure, new leaders emerged in almost every other Orthodox Christian denomination, starting with the 1991 enthronement of the spiritual head of world Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, to last month’s election of Metropolitan Jonah to lead the Orthodox Church in America.
He also lived to see the death of Pope John Paul II, a fierce opponent of communism who had longed to visit Russia in a bid to heal the split between East and West that erupted more than 950 years ago.
Alexy, however, repeatedly denied those requests.
Over the past two decades, Alexy and other Russian leaders frowned upon Catholic proselytizing in what they consider their exclusive territory. The Catholic church has repeatedly denied any intention of converting Orthodox believers in Russia.
Despite the lack of progress toward a papal visit to Russia, in recent years both sides have made significant gestures toward reconciliation. Last June, Bartholomew, considered first among equals among Orthodox leaders, prayed with Benedict in Rome and attended a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
In a condolence statement Friday morning, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, affirmed the late patriarch’s “personal commitment to improving relations with the Catholic Church,” while acknowledging “difficulties and tensions” in that relationship.
A telegram from Pope Benedict XVI further credited Alexy’s efforts “for the rebirth of the church, after the severe ideological repression which led to the martyrdom of so many witnesses to the Christian faith.”
Leaders of other faiths around the world also sent condolences, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who leads the worldwide Anglican Communion.
“He was a leader of stature, with abundant experience, determination and courage, who guided his church with a steady hand through a profoundly challenging period of change in Russia’s history,” Williams said.
Memorial services will be held at Orthodox churches around the world. In New York City, the headquarters for the Moscow Patriarchate in the United States, state officials, clergy and worshipers were invited to attend a Friday evening memorial service at the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral.
Russian Church leaders will meet Saturday afternoon in Moscow to finalize the funeral arrangements and appoint a temporary head to the church. A council to elect the next patriarch will most likely convene after a 40-day mourning period, said Kryukov, of the network of U.S.-based Russian Orthodox parishes.

c. 2008 Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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