Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church has made his first public appearance in Moscow following a swirl of recent rumours that he had died or fallen gravely ill while receiving medical treatment in Switzerland.
The Patriarch said on 2 May the rumours may have been part of an effort to scuttle the scheduled Ascension Day reunion of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on 17 May. The church outside Russia is a staunchly anti-Soviet émigré group that separated from Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and agreed to restore unity only after several years of negotiations.
"As you can see, I’m healthy, I’m serving, I’m alive," Alexei told reporters after leading a service at Moscow’s Pokrovsky Monastery on the feast day of Saint Matrona, who was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church eight years ago for her steadfast religious faith during the Soviet era.
"Apparently someone wanted to ruin my vacation and medical treatment," the RIA-Novosti news agency quoted the Patriarch as saying. "Maybe someone thought that on the threshold of signing the Act of Canonical Union of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia with the Mother Church, with the Moscow Patriarchate, these rumours would affect the signing of the act."
Sergei Kravets, the director of the Orthodox Encyclopedia religious research centre, which is affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, told Itar-Tass news agency that Alexei was not in Switzerland as had been reported. "The Patriarch has never had a coronary bypass," said Kravets. Some Russian reports said the Patriarch had experienced clinical death after undergoing bypass surgery.
Patriarch Alexei’s absence last week at the funerals of former President Boris Yeltsin and Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist and conductor, at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, helped fuel the rumours.
Both churches appear to have dissenters over the union, and the Moscow Patriarchate has accused some elements within the Russian Orthodox Church of seeking to derail the agreement, which is being treated in Russia not only as a spiritual, but as a political event.
Visits in 2003, and 2005, by President Vladimir Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, to Metropolitan Laurus, the leader of Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, gave impetus to reunion talks.
Sergei Markov, a political scientist who is a member of the Public Chamber, a Kremlin-connected civil society advocacy group in Russia, commented in the Tribuna newspaper: "The unification of the churches should become yet another important step on the path to overcoming the historical schism of the Russian people."
The Russian overseas church has been known for being staunchly anticommunist. It was created in the 1920s and is now based in New York. It has also been known for opposing ecumenism, but the Rev. Alexander Lebedev, a Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia priest, said his church had come to an understanding that the Moscow Patriarchate should remain in the World Council of Churches, for now.
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