MOSCOW (AFP) — The Russian Orthodox Church has selected 62-year-old Metropolitan Kirill as its new patriarch, an outspoken figure who analysts say could prove a headache for the Kremlin.
A seasoned operator after long service as head of the church's foreign relations section, Kirill was elected on Tuesday by an overwhelming majority in a ballot of church leaders in Moscow's ornate cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Kirill, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, received 508 votes in a secret ballot of the Church Council in Moscow while his challenger Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk won 169 votes.
"I accept and thank the Church Council for my election as Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia," Kirill said solemnly after the results were announced, before leading the congregation in an Orthodox liturgy.
Addressing the incense-filled gathering earlier, Kirill had made a strident call for church unity and urged the faithful to resist Protestant and Catholic proselytizing, dampening hopes of a transformation in poisonous ties with Rome.
About 700 bearded and robed bishops and laity from both Russia and diocese abroad had the right to participate in the first such vote of the post-Soviet era, following the death of Alexy II last month.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both congratulated Kirill, news agencies reported.
"Medvedev voiced hope for further strengthening of the dialogue between church and state in developing the country and boosting spiritual values," Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalya Timakova was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
Putin, who is himself an Orthodox believer, telephoned Kirill to offer his congratulations, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov added.
Kirill's comments echoed the tough approach of his predecessor, who resisted attempts by late Polish pope John Paul II to reach out to Catholics in ex-Soviet lands and who refused to countenance a papal visit to Russia.
In the post-Soviet era "the most active proselytizing was by missionaries of all manner of Protestant denominations but we also noticed with bitterness representatives of the Catholic hierarchy," Kirill said.
"We must attentively follow developments and where necessary quickly and decisively react to threats," added Kirill, who after Alexy's death was appointed "Guardian of the Throne" temporarily in charge of the church.
Metropolitan Kirill, who has hosted his own weekly television programme "Words of a Pastor" for the past 10 years, is seen as something of a loose cannon in political circles, analysts say.
"Among the bishops, he's the only real politician. If I were president, I'd be afraid of such a man," said religious affairs expert Sergei Filatov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, referring to Kirill.
Russia's politicians "can't tell what he's going to do. If (the economy) all goes pear shaped they don't know what Patriarch Kirill would do. They'd prefer someone they had control over," said religious affairs analyst and journalist for the Forum 18 religious news agency Geraldine Fagan earlier.
Kirill, whose crushing victory had been widely predicted, takes over a church that went from strength to strength under Alexy after being repressed in the Soviet era.
Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev both attend church on feast days, as do other Slavic leaders such as Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko.
The church's relatively rapid election of Kirill, without resorting to a run-off, and the withdrawal of a third candidate just before voting began were indicative of its desire to make a show of unity at a crucial moment.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is 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.
In an interview with the Trud newspaper published Monday, Kirill said the church was thriving but could still play a greater role in daily life, including education.