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Russia bids farewell to Patriarch at grand funeral Add to ...

Top officials prayed and mourners wept on Tuesday at the funeral of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II, and speakers praised him for reviving the nation's Christian faith after decades of communism.

Streets in central Moscow came to a halt. State television and radio cancelled normal programming to broadcast live the half-day-long farewell to Alexiy, who died on Friday aged 79.

The church's interim leader, Metropolitan Kirill, was led away briefly from the ceremony after apparently feeling unwell, a Reuters photographer said. A Kremlin press official said Kirill had fainted and he returned after a short break to continue participating in the service.

Orthodox Patriarchs and Metropolitans (senior bishops) from Russia and abroad stood in the city's vast Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Bearded priests chanted the ancient Divine Liturgy in deep sonorous tones and believers crossed themselves.

President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wearing black suits and black ties, arrived at the cathedral with their spouses, three hours into the ceremony. They stood in the front row near the patriarch's coffin, holding candles.

Alexiy's coffin lay draped in a green, red and white shroud on a catafalque amid hundreds of white flowers in the centre of the cathedral. At its head was the distinctive Orthodox cross with its extra two bars.

"His Holiness always remembered that the Russian Orthodox Church was the only one which preserved the traditions, the memory and the values of holy Rus," Kirill said in a tribute delivered next to the coffin.

The presidents of close Moscow allies Belarus, Armenia and Serbia were also present, along with Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, at least 11 Russian cabinet ministers and top Kremlin officials.

Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, head of the Patriarchy's department for co-operation with the army and law enforcement forces, paid tribute to Alexiy's role in reviving the Church.

"The number of churches multiplied to 30,000 and the number of monasteries to 700 from 18. This is a fantastic number, so fantastic it is difficult to believe, but it is true," he said.

But Alexiy's opponents say he allowed the church to become a junior partner of the Kremlin under former president Putin. Alexiy failed to shake off allegations he had links to the Soviet KGB. The church has repeatedly denied this.

Tens of thousands of mourners waited in cold rain outside the gold-domed cathedral, whose reconstruction in the 1990s after being demolished by Stalin was one of Alexiy's triumphs.

Hundreds more waited behind railings at the city's 18th century Epiphany Cathedral, where Alexiy was due to be buried later in the day. Around three dozen funeral wreaths of white roses and red carnations crowded the entrance to the cathedral

Pensioner Olga Larchenko said: "I feel today that a great saintly man has left us. I hope he will pray for Russia when in heaven. I attended his sermons and he was such an approachable and simple man in his everyday life."

Kirill, the Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, was picked as interim leader of the church on Saturday by a 12-man Synod of top church leaders.

The Holy Synod will announce on Wednesday the date for convening the Local Council, a body of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy and laity charged with electing the Patriarch.

Observers say there are four leading contenders to succeed Alexiy II, including Kirill. Issues in choosing the new patriarch include relations with the state and the Catholic church. Kirill is seen as a relative reformer on both points.

During his patriarchy, Alexiy helped heal an 80-year rift with a rival faction of the church in the West which had been set up by monarchists fleeing the atheist Bolsheviks.

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