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Leader of Greek Orthodox Church Dead at 69

Hundreds of mourners, many sobbing, gathered Monday at Athens' cathedral to file past the remains of Archbishop Christodoulos, the first leader of Greece's powerful Orthodox Church to welcome a Catholic pope to Athens in 1,300 years.

The charismatic cleric was often named Greece's most popular public figure but was also criticized as an ambitious reactionary. He died at his home in Athens on Monday at age 69 of cancer, leaving the race for his succession wide open.

Christodoulos has been credited with reinvigorating a church seen as distant from its followers in a country where more than 90 percent of the native-born population is baptized into it.

Greece's Orthodox Church holds considerable sway among the world's Orthodox churches. Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Arguably the greatest achievement of Christodoulos was helping improve ties with the Vatican.

"The doors of communication with the Catholic Church had rusted over and they were again opened by Archbishop Christodoulos," said the theologian Giorgos Moustakis. "This was a very difficult thing, and it was opposed by powerful fringe religious groups."

Despite vigorous protests from Orthodox zealots who marched through Athens denouncing the pope as the anti-Christ, Christodoulos in 2001 hosted the late John Paul II — the first pope to visit Greece in centuries. The archbishop followed up in 2006 with visit to the Vatican, where he and Pope Benedict XVI signed a joint declaration calling for inter-religious dialogue.

Orthodox zealots supported Christodoulos, however, on one of his most outspoken public campaigns. His efforts to stop the government from dropping the religion entry from state identity cards saw him holding public rallies before hundreds of thousands of people in 2001. The church claimed its petition campaign gathered 3 million signatures — more than a quarter of the population. But the campaign failed.

Christodoulos was elected church leader in 1998 and thundered onto the public stage, appearing on television and radio shows, visiting schools and hospitals, alternately fascinating and shocking Greeks with his fiery speeches.

"Clergymen are above kings, prime ministers and presidents," he once said.

Within months, he had expounded on everything from Greece's economy to relations with Turkey, leading some politicians to grumble about his apparent political ambitions.

A spate of scandals which saw senior clerics accused of embezzlement, involvement in sexual misdeeds and even trial-fixing in 2005 led to calls for his resignation. Christodoulos publicly apologized for failing to contain the scandal and defeated a no-confidence motion in the church's governing Holy Synod by a vote of 67-1.

But public criticism quickly faded after he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and large intestine in June, and he was widely praised for the strength and dignity he showed during his illness. He refused hospital treatment in his final weeks.

The government declared four days of mourning, culminating in a funeral in Athens with full state honors Thursday. Christodoulos' body will lie in the capital's cathedral until then.

The Holy Synod has set the start of the election to chose a successor for Feb. 7.

"The Archbishop worked to bring people closer to the church ... now his tireless voice has fallen silent," the Patriarchate said. "His parting is painful."

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Holy Land Theofilos III described Christodoulos as "a very dynamic church leader... He was a man who worked in order to promote reconciliation and coexistence and mutual tolerance between the religions."

In a statement, President Bush said, "The late Archbishop was well known as an articulate voice of the Orthodox faith, for his engagement in inter-religious dialogue, and for his promotion of social programs to help the vulnerable. Our prayers are with the people of Greece and all those who followed his spiritual guidance."