The interim leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has been elected as the new patriarch of the world's largest Orthodox Christian church.
A church official said Metropolitan Kirill easily beat out a more conservative rival in a vote Tuesday by electors who included clerics and laymen. He received 508 of the 700 votes cast.
Kirill will be installed Sunday as the successor to Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, who died in December after leading Russia's dominant faith in a powerful post-Soviet revival.
Kirill served for years as the church's external relations chief. He is seen as a modernizer more likely than his rivals to seek a measure of independence from the state and better relations with the Vatican.
During the voting, Kirill remained the front-runner. Kirill, 62, received the most votes — 97 — in a secret ballot by church leaders Sunday. The two other candidates chosen by the Bishops Council were Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, who received 32 votes, and Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk, with 16.
Shortly before the voting began Tuesday, a church spokesman said Filaret had withdrawn from the race and urged his supporters to vote for Kirill.
The Kremlin did not openly back any of the contenders. But President Dmitry Medvedev is said to be close to Metropolitan Kliment, 59, who is supported by church fundamentalists.
Strong fundamentalist movement
Less conservative than Kliment, Kirill is seen as more likely to assert independence from the Kremlin and work for improved relations with the Vatican. He served under Alexy as the church's external relations chief, essentially its foreign minister.
He faces opposition from a strong fundamentalist movement within the church that sees him as too modern and too eager for a rapprochement with Roman Catholics.
The church insists it is not appropriate to compare the selection process to a secular election because a new patriarch has already been chosen by God. In practice, the patriarch's electors included some of Russia's politically connected elite: a tobacco-company owner, a governor's wife and the son of the president of Trans-Dniester, a Russia-dominated breakaway province of Moldova.
Church and state are officially separate under Russia's post-Soviet constitution, but the Russian Orthodox Church has served the state for much of its 1,000-year history and ties have tightened since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.
Some nonreligious Russians complain that the church has tailored its doctrine to suit the government, which has justified Russia's retreat from Western-style democracy by saying the country has a unique history and culture.
Underlining the close ties, state television broadcast hours of the council session live. In lengthy opening remarks, Kirill elaborately thanked Medvedev's administration for "warm and very benevolent greetings."
The Russian Orthodox Church counts its flock as more than 100 million in Russia, though polls show that only about 5 percent of Russians — mostly low-income rural dwellers and urban intellectuals — are observant believers.
Two-thirds of the electors were clerics, the rest laymen. Dioceses across the former Soviet Union sent businessmen, government officials and their relatives to vote for the new patriarch — an unprecedented move the church calls an "award" to supporters and sponsors.
The decision to open the voting to powerful lay people has drawn some sharp criticism, but the church leadership has shrugged it off.