MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia on Tuesday was burying its first Orthodox patriarch of post-Soviet times, in a epic funeral ceremony that ushers in a new era for a Church now closely tied to the Kremlin.
The body of Patriarch Alexy II, who died on Friday aged 79, was laid out in an open coffin at the Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow surrounded by 200 Russian bishops clad in their white ceremonial robes.
The clergy and choirs sang the Russian Orthodox liturgy, their deep voices filling the cathedral that Alexy helped build on the site of a similar building that was demolished by Soviet leader Stalin to make way for a swimming pool.
Incense was swung around the body of Alexy, whose coffin had been placed on a raised platform surrounded by roses and with an icon and candles at its head, pictures broadcast on state television showed.
The patriarch, whose coffin has already viewed by over 50,000 mourners since Saturday, will be buried later Tuesday at the nearby Epiphany cathedral after a procession starting at around 0800 GMT.
Reflecting the faith's elevation to de-facto state religion in the last years, the services at Christ the Saviour cathedral were due to be attended by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Under Medvedev's predecessor as president -- his mentor Putin -- the Russian Orthodox church enjoyed a remarkable resurgence after suffering severe repression and destruction of its churches in Soviet times.
Entertainment broadcasts on television and other cultural events on Tuesday have been cancelled by order of Medvedev who has described Alexy as "a genuine spiritual leader" and "great citizen of Russia."
Russian nationwide channels are cancelling all advertising and programmes like soap operas and instead broadcasting live coverage of the marathon funeral ceremonies and religious programmes.
The NTV channel will also be showing the premiere of a film "The Beginning of the Way" about Alexy's early life that appears to have been made in preparation for his death.
In a bid to reconcile the two main branches of Orthodoxy, Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I was attending funeral services for Alexy, despite longstanding tensions between the two.
"We have lost a very important brother. To attend his funeral is an important duty for me," said Bartholomew before heading to Moscow.
Also attending from abroad will be an array of prominent figures from the Orthodox world but who have praised Alexy for reviving the Church and mending a split with believers who went into exile in Soviet times.
Among them are Serbia's President Boris Tadic, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Georgian Orthodox Church leader Ilia II and a descendant of murdered Tsar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna.
The initial ceremonies were being led by the powerful head of the Church's foreign relations department, Metropolitan Kirill, who has been named its interim leader, or "guardian of the throne."
While rivalry for the leadership could still break out, Kirill, 62, is seen as most likely to succeed Alexy when a new patriarch is chosen at a general synod due within six months.
While Kirill has fostered ties with other churches around the world since Soviet times, experts were cautious on the chances of him mending poisonous ties with the Roman Catholic Church.
Leading the Church during a period of robust revival, Alexy was an establishment figure who was criticised by some as being too ready to serve the Kremlin's political causes.
Born Alexei Ridiger, he made his ecclesiastical career at a time when the Church was controlled by Soviet authorities before forging an alliance with the new Russian state under presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.
He became patriarch in 1990, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union but ruled out investigations against Church officials accused of links to the Soviet secret services.
Some experts predicted that if the outspoken Kirill is confirmed as patriarch, he could prove a still more vocal opponent of the West and energetic advocate of religion in Russian life, for example in the education system.
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