Kirill: Putin's scandal-hit head of Church

14th August 2012, Comments 0 comments

Patriarch Kirill is a self-professed ally of President Vladimir Putin who flourished under Soviet rule and became plagued by scandal on becoming the head of Russia's powerful Orthodox Church in 2009.

The 65-year-old begins his landmark visit to Poland on Wednesday with his name in the news due to the trial of an all-girl punk band called Pussy Riot that performed a "punk prayer" stunt against his ties to the state.

Hopes were high when the energetic successor to the late Alexy II was chosen that he could "be a mediator between the authorities" and believers in the predominantly Orthodox Christian state, the Vedomosti business daily said.

But Kirill has since seen his reputation compromised by scandals linked to his ownership of luxury goods and property as well as use of angry rhetoric to denounce protests against Putin's rule.

The new Church leader is in fact closely retracing the steps of Alexy II -- a domineering presence whose reign stretched over two decades from the late Soviet era until his death.

Both men engaged in campaigns to win back vast properties stripped from the Church by the Bolsheviks and to introduce Orthodox culture in secular parts of society such as the armed forces and schools.

And they have done so by staying on good terms with the Kremlin authorities after developing reputations as people who always won promotions at a time when the Church operated under Communist Party rule.

Kirill for one was asked to represent the Soviet-era Church at the World Council of Churches in Geneva -- a sensitive post through which Moscow fought off Western charges of the clergy cooperating with the KGB -- at the tender age of 25.

That was at a time when all such assignments were vetted both by the party and the secret police.

Kirill -- who like other Church leaders has never addressed his Soviet past in public -- was born under the name Vladimir Gundyayev to a strongly religious family in which both his father and grandfather served as priests.

He entered the seminary in 1965 and became a monk in 1969 before being picked for the Geneva post two years later.

Kirill returned to the Soviet Union to head the Orthodox Spiritual Academy in Putin's native Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and eventually the department for external relations of the Patriarchate under Alexy II.

That assignment should only make Kirill more aware of how prickly the Church's relations can get with other Christian denominations and particularly the Catholic Church.

The disputes are centuries-old and currently being waged, with the fiercest over lands in Eastern Europe such as Ukraine where both Churches reserve the priority right to proselytise.

Kirill has most recently found himself in the heat of domestic political battle linked to the unexpected winter protests that rose against Putin's return to a third term in March 4 polls.

His overt support for Putin and condemnation of the demonstrations made him a target of a furious Internet campaign by bloggers who soon discovered that the patriarch was the owner of a luxury Moscow flat.

Another Internet user soon noticed a photograph published on the Church's website appearing to show a polished table's reflection of a huge gold watch strapped on the patriarch's left hand.

The watch itself appeared to have been airbrushed out of the picture -- a fact eventually acknowledged by the Church and blamed on an "unfortunate error".

These scandals set the tone until the day in February when the Pussy Riot punks burst into Moscow's vast Christ the Saviour Cathedral to belt out scathing lyrics mentioning how the Patriarch "believes in Putin".

State prosecutors are seeking three years in a corrective labour facility for the women on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Kirill has denounced their "punk prayer" as "blasphemous".


© 2012 AFP

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