MOSCOW – Candles flickered and white-robed elders chanted prayers as Russia bade farewell Tuesday to Patriarch Alexy II, who guided the country's dominant Russian Orthodox Church through its remarkable recovery after decades of Communist-era oppression.
Nuns, believers and government officials looked on as prayers filled the soaring Christ the Savior Cathedral at the funeral ceremony for Alexy, who died Friday at age 79. He was to be buried later in the day at Epiphany Cathedral across town.
Chosen as patriarch a year before the 1991 collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union, Alexy shaped the church's powerful growth — and a renewal of its traditionally close ties with the Russian state — through the turbulent years that followed.
"We are burying a great man, a great son of our nation, a beautiful holy fruit grown by our Russian church," Rev. Dmitry Smirnov, a Moscow archpriest, said in an address at the funeral, which was broadcast live on state-run television. "Our whole nation has been orphaned."
Tuesday's funeral followed nearly three days of around-the-clock viewing of the patriarch's body, with 80,000 people lining up outside the cathedral and waiting hours in the rain to file past his coffin and pay their last respects.
Alexy's body lay in an open casket surrounded by flowers and candles in the cathedral near the Kremlin, his face and body covered by a white-and-gold embroidered cloth.
The opulent, hours-long ceremony mirrored services Alexy himself led at Christ the Savior: The glittering robes, incense smoke, the prayers and the upturned faces of the faithful.
It was led by Alexy's temporary replacement, Metropolitan Kirill, a top contender to become the next patriarch. That decision may not come for months, however.
President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended with their wives, arriving around the midpoint of the six-hour ceremony at Christ the Savior. Each took his turn approaching the casket, crossing himself and bending to kiss the covered body of the patriarch.
While raised under Communism, both leaders have prominently attended services on major holidays of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has settled into something like the deferential role it played in relation to the state under the czars.
Black-robed pallbearers carried the coffin outside and circled the cathedral, while nuns scattered white roses on the rain-soaked pavement. The body was put in a hearse, and police cars with blinking lights led a procession of black cars along the darkening streets past the Kremlin toward the burial site.
Other Orthodox Christian leaders also came to bid farewell, including Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.
Smirnov said Alexy was primarily responsible for the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims about two-thirds of Russia's 142 million people as its flock and also controls Orthodox churches in several ex-Soviet republics.
He said that under Alexy, the number of monasteries — including small outfits with a handful of monks — had increased from 18 to more than 700. The church also says the number of houses of worship has risen from fewer than 7,000 in 1988 to nearly 30,000 today.
"He was a true builder of the church," Smirnov said.
Another major accomplishment was his signing of a 2007 pact with the leader of the breakaway Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia — the product of a split prompted by the advent of Communist rule — to bring the churches closer together.
Alexy clearly felt challenged by missionaries who flooded into Russia after the Soviet collapse, and he successfully lobbied for the 1997 passage of a law that places restrictions on the activities of religions other than Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. Smaller Christian groups say they face serious discrimination in Russia.
During his time as patriarch, secular liberals and leaders of other faiths expressed concern that the dominant Russian Orthodox Church was gaining too much influence over temporal life and growing too close to the state.
But supporters say he was a force for moderation, forging warm relations with Russia's large Muslim and smaller Jewish minorities and keeping radically nationalist, chauvinist camps in his own church under control.
Alexy's death left unresolved disputes with the Roman Catholic Church, reflecting both age-old and recent tensions between Russia and the West.
His opposition to what the Russian Orthodox Church alleged was Catholic encroachment on its traditional territory thwarted the late Pope John Paul II's dream of visiting Russia more than a millennium after the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christendom between East and West.
Alexy was shadowed by allegations of early cooperation with the Soviet KGB, which Orthodox Church officials vehemently denied. The British-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in former Communist countries, has cited research suggesting his career may have been aided by assistance he gave the KGB while a young priest in Estonia.