By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
(ADDS MORE DETAILS AND KGB CONTROVERSY)
MOSCOW/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who oversaw the post-Soviet revival of the Christian faith after decades of Communism but was accused of encouraging nationalism, died early Friday, December 5, at his residence at the age of 79, his church said.
The Moscow Patriarchy said the head of the Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church died at his residence in Peredelkino outside Moscow, but did not give a cause of death. Church observers said Alexy had long suffered from a heart ailment.
He became leader of the church in 1990, as the officially atheist Soviet Union was loosening its restrictions on religion.
After the Soviet Union collapsed the following year, the church’s popularity surged. Church buildings that had been stripped of their gold under Soviet rule were regilded; churches that had been converted into warehouses, museums or left to rot in neglect were painstakingly restored, and hours-long Masses on major religious holidays were broadcast live on national television.
However under his leadership, it also became again difficult for non-Orthodox groups and denominations to operate in several parts of the country, after they were initially welcomed in the early days of transition. As the Orthodox Church reasserted its influence, especially Protestant groups and churches often complained they had difficulties receiving permission or were even forced to suspend activities.
Even the Salvation Army, a Protestant aid and church organization, was initially banned by authorities in Moscow for being a “a dangerous militarised group,” before being restored after winning a legal battle at the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Critics said he also stood in the way of a visit to Russia by the Polish-born former leader of the Catholic church, Pope John Paul II. And although he expressed similar views on same-sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion as Pope Benedict XVI, this never resulted in a meeting.
Rights groups have accused him and the Orthodox Church of closely cooperating with authorities and politicians, who in turn sought the church support, at the expense of other Christian organizations. He was a frequent visitor to the Kremlin, and then Russian President Vladimir Putin was often seen at key church services held at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, demolished by Soviet ruler Josef Stalin and rebuilt in the 1990s.
Several Orthodox religious leaders who avoided arrest and torture during repeated Soviet-era clampdowns were later found to be agents working for the KGB security service, according to researchers. Among researchers who had access to KGB archives, Gleb Yakunin, told Reuters news agency that Alexy, whose name is also spelled as Alexiy, was a KGB agent though the Moscow Patriarchate has always denied this.
Whatever the controversy, for many Russians the patriarch apparently remained a crucial spiritual leader, according to Russian television. Within minutes of the announcement of Alexy II’s death, state television broadcast video footage of him and officials past and present voiced their condolences.
“I am shocked,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president who held power in the Kremlin when Alexy II became the head of the church in 1990.
“It is hard to find words. I had immense respect for him,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying. Gorbachev in recent years had shown a growing interest in Christianity.
“This is an irretrievable loss for all Russian Orthodox people, wherever they live,” Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of parliament, added. (This is a developing story; stay with BosNewsLife for regular updates).