RUSSIA

Three shortlisted to head Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church has announced three candidates for next week's elections to replace the recently deceased patriarch Alexy II. Metropolitans Kirill and Kliment (pictured left and right) are the frontrunners.

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AFP - The Russian Orthodox Church on Sunday announced that the two leading candidates had as expected made the shortlist for the first election of a new patriarch since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The election -- which must be completed by Thursday -- is set to be a face-off between a highly charismatic cleric seen regularly on television and a lower profile colleague who is highly respected in church circles.

The new patriarch will be enthroned by Sunday to succeed Alexy II, who died last month and oversaw a resurgence of the church after Soviet repression and fostered increasingly close ties with the Kremlin.

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, known to millions of Russians through his long-running television show "Words of a Pastor," polled 97 votes in the secret ballot of top clergy.

The lower-profile Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, who runs the church administration and has strong support amongst clerical circles, won 32 votes, according to the results read out live on state television.

Trailing with 16 votes and the final name on the shortlist was Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk, an older candidate whose best chance of winning is if the battle between the two heavyweights is seen as too divisive.

In the Russian Orthodox Church, a metropolitan is the head of an ecclesiastical province and the highest rank below patriarch.

Kirill, who polled over three times as many votes as Kliment, will now be the clear favourite going into the election to be the 16th Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

The new patriarch will be chosen by a wider Church Council, which also includes lay members. It will be the first election of the post-Soviet era, as Alexy was elected in 1990, just before the USSR's collapse.

"Personally, I am in favour of Kirill, he has done a lot for restoring churches," said Irina Dergacheva, a churchgoer waiting outside the vast Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow where the meeting was held.

"We see him a lot on television, we know what he stands for," she added.

Kirill, 62, has been portrayed in some quarters as a reformist and Kliment, 59, as more conservative but analysts warn that attaching such political adjectives to church leaders risks sowing confusion.

Some commentators have said the main difference is not in ideology but that Kirill is happy to see the church play a major role in political life while the more withdrawn Kliment wants to focus on its spiritual role alone.

A bizarre and unseemly smear campaign carried out against both men over the last week raised the prospect the church could choose a less-fancied candidate in order to avoid the risk of a schism.

This could help the chances of Metropolitan Filaret who, aged well over 70, could be seen as a safe transitional candidate.

In a sign of the tensions ahead of the vote, the authorities closed access to the muck-raking religious website credo.ru, its deputy editor Vladimir Oivin told the Echo of Moscow radio.

Kirill, who is currently interim head of the church, paid tribute to Alexy. "We must not forget the great task ahead of us. To be worthy of the memory of this great holy man of the Russian Church," he said.

Whichever metropolitan wins, they will take over a church that has gone from strength to strength after the fall of the Soviet Union and plays a leading role in public and even political life.

In a sign of the new intimacy between the church and Kremlin, both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid a farewell kiss on the body of Alexy at his funeral.

The number of monasteries has quadrupled since the fall of the Soviet Union and more than three quarters of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox believers, compared with only a quarter in 1990.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is itself a symbol of the church's resurgence. Dynamited under Stalin, it was then replaced by an open air swimming pool before an exact replica was rebuilt in the 1990s.

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