MOSCOW – Senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church on Sunday voted for three candidates, including the church's interim leader, as potential replacements for former Patriarch Alexy II, who died last month.
Church leaders chose them in a secret ballot Sunday in Christ the Savior's Cathedral. A final choice will be made by Thursday before a weekend enthronement.
Along with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the Bishop's Council chose two lesser-known candidates — Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk and Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk.
Kirill got 97 votes, Kliment 32 and Filaret 16.
It will be the first election of a patriarch since the Soviet breakup and comes as the church is enjoying unprecedented popularity and close ties to the Kremlin.
Alexy II died Dec. 5 at the age of 79. He became patriarch in 1990, just before the demise of the officially atheist Soviet Union.
Kirill opened the proceedings at the vast cathedral next to the Kremlin by calling the assembled bishops to prayer for the memory Alexy II.
Many observers consider Kirill, 62 — the Church's highest-profile official — the favorite to become the next patriarch.
Kirill led the prayer service at Alexy II's funeral last month in the same cathedral, a ceremony broadcast live on all the main state television networks.
Alexander Ogorodnikov, a religion expert and editor of an Orthodox magazine, said Kirill had a "very good chance" of taking over. He said Kirill has the backing of the church's intellectual elite, and is an active missionary.
Kirill would be likely to steer a more independent course from the Kremlin, observers say, though state influence is unlikely to wane significantly.
The church's relations with the Kremlin are stronger than ever, as shown when President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin kissed Alexy II in his coffin during last month's lying-in-state.
Alexy II gave his blessing last year to Medvedev's election as president, praising the social programs Medvedev had implemented as deputy prime minister.
But Kirill is unlikely to have a free run to the throne, the analyst said. He may face the strongest challenge from candidates who represent "not a crisis manager, but more of a father, a loving patriarch," Ogorodnikov said.
Neither Kliment nor Filaret is well-known among Russia's 100 million-strong Orthodox Christians, but both are thought to enjoy strong support among bishops and priests.