Russian Patriarch Kirill, Kremlin's unwavering backer
A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, Patriarch Kirill has helped to transform the Russian Orthodox Church into a powerful institution of the post-Soviet state.
The 69-year-old native of Saint Petersburg will meet Pope Francis next week in Cuba.
It will be a historic gathering of the heads of the major western and eastern branches of Christianity after the religion split traumatically in the 11th century -- an event known as "The Great Schism."
Kirill, born Vladimir Gundyaev, was chosen to take the helm of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2009 after the death of Patriarch Alexy II, a domineering presence who had been in charge since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
No stranger to controversy, the patriarch has fervently backed Putin's conservative drive in the country and his military action abroad.
Last month he declared Russia's military campaign in Syria was a "defensive war" to protect Russia from terrorism and was therefore "just".
"When war defends our people's lives and our country we view it as a just action that seeks just goals," he said in an interview with the channel Rossiya.
During Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the ensuing war in eastern Ukraine, the Patriarch's stance mostly consisted of denouncing "anti-Russian" policies of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern rite church that recognises the Pope and is a source of great friction between Moscow and Vatican.
He stands by defiant pro-Kremlin, anti-Western views although they have turned away many Orthodox Ukrainians against the Moscow Patriarchate, which oversees hundreds of parishes in the country.
- 'Spiritual bonds' -
Inside Russia, Kirill has supported the policies of Putin who, since his 2012 election to the third term, called on Russians to respect "spiritual bonds" and the traditional values of the Orthodox Church, lashing out at "liberal" and Western views.
"We are a great and powerful country, we have kept our own way, we have not lost our identity, unlike the great and powerful countries in Europe," Kirill said in November.
In some ways, Kirill is closely retracing the steps of Alexy II, whose reign as patriarch 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.
Today, the Russian Orthodox Church says it has around 150 million followers at home and abroad, mainly among expatriate Russian communities and their descendants.
Like his predecessor, Kirill is also deemed by critics to be a product of a Soviet-era relationship between the clergy and the KGB security services.
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 whitewashed Soviet crimes -- 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.
He 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.
His overt support for Putin 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 and a lavish residence on the Black Sea.
The biggest controversy of all came when the Pussy Riot punks burst into Moscow's vast Christ the Saviour Cathedral in 2012 Russia to belt out scathing lyrics mentioning how the Patriarch "believes in Putin".
Kirill denounced their "punk prayer" as "blasphemous". Two of the women were sentenced to two-year prison camp terms in remote regions after being found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, but were released early.
© 2016 AFP