Metropolitan Kirill 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church on Sunday began the process of selecting a new leader following the death last month of Patriarch Alexy II.
Church leaders are to make a short list from the dozens of possible candidates in a secret ballot at Moscow's Christ the Savior's Cathedral. They will make a final choice by Thursday before a weekend enthronement.
It will be the first election of a patriarch since the Soviet breakup and comes as the church is enjoying unprecedented popularity and close ties to the Kremlin.
Alexy II died on December 5 aged 79. He became patriarch in 1990, just before the demise of the officially atheist Soviet Union.
The church's interim leader, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, opened the proceedings at the vast cathedral next to the Kremlin by calling the assembled bishops to prayer for the memory of Alexy II.
Many observers consider Kirill, 62 - the Church's highest-profile official - to be the favorite to become the next patriarch.
Kirill led the prayer service at Alexy II's funeral in the same cathedral last month, a ceremony broadcast live on all main state television networks.
Alexander Ogorodnikov, a religion expert and editor of a Russian Orthodox magazine, said Kirill had a "very good chance" of taking over. He said Kirill has the backing of the church's intellectual elite and is an active missionary.
Kirill would likely carve a more independent course from the Kremlin, observers say, though state influence is unlikely to wane significantly.
The church's relations with the Kremlin are stronger than ever, as shown when President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin kissed Alexy II's forehead during last month's lying-in-state.
Alexy II gave his blessing to Medvedev's election as president last year, publicly praising the social programs he had implemented as deputy prime minister.
But Kirill is unlikely to have a free run to the throne, the analyst said.
He may face the strongest challenge from candidates who represent "not a crisis manager, but more of a father, a loving patriarch," Ogorodnikov said.
He named Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk and Archbishop Veniamin of Vladivostok and Primorsk as Kirill's main rivals.
Neither is well-known among Russia's 100 million-strong flock, but both are thought to enjoy strong support among bishops and priests.
In Israel the Russian Orthodox Church began making its presence felt in the 19th century and owns numerous pieces of real estate.
However, as Daniel Rossing of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute (located in Jerusalem near Bethlehem) points out, the Christian Orthodox authority in the Holy Land is controlled by the Greek Orthodox as part of an agreement among the Orthodox churches.
"The Russian Orthodox Church has agreed not to appoint a bishop in the Holy Land," Rossing explained. "As a result the Russians, unlike the Greeks, cannot appoint Arab clergy to the Church."
The Greek Orthodox Church is the only Orthodox Church recognized by the State of Israel as a separate religious community with the power to marry and divorce, to build churches and to create an ecclesiastical court, he said.
As a result, the appointment of a new patriarch in Moscow is not expected to have an impact in Israel.
In the '80s and '90s, with the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the number of Russian Orthodox Christians living in Israel grew rapidly.
The Greek Orthodox Church protected its hegemony by insisting on taking responsibility for these immigrants.
A Russian-speaking clergyman, Father Alexander Vinogradsky Frenkel, who has Jewish origins, was appointed by the Greek Orthodox Church to minister to this new community.
Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches share the same theology, but their clerical hierarchies are different.
Also, official liturgy is normally in the respective languages - Greek or Russian. However, both churches permit prayer in other languages.
The indigenous Arab community prays in Arabic while Russian immigrants who now belong to the Greek Orthodox Church pray in Russian.
Another complication is that the Russian Orthodox Church is split between White and Red factions.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia was called "White," while the church that developed inside Communist Russia was known as "Red."
Since Communist Russia was one of the first countries to recognize Israel, the Red faction took control of churches located inside the Green Line, while in territories controlled by Jordan the White faction kept control.