TV schedules cleared for live coverage

MOSCOW — By presidential order, Russian television cleared schedules of entertainment shows Tuesday and three state channels devoted hours of live broadcasts to the funeral of Russian Orthodox Church patriarch Alexy II, who died Friday aged 79.

Orthodox church leaders from across Eastern Europe and heads of other faiths, including the Catholic and Anglican churches and Islam, joined Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin and other mourners at Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral for a marathon service lasting more than six hours before a burial service at the nearby Epiphany Cathedral.

Aired live across Russia on the First Channel and Rossiya — and around the world on Internet accessible Vesti 24 — television pictures from the cathedral showed the patriarch’s green-draped open coffin, his bearded features covered by a veil, surrounded by 200 bishops in white ceremonial robes and icon-studded domed headgear, as the baritone voices of clergy filled the air with the sung funeral liturgy.

It was the first funeral of an Orthodox patriarch since Soviet times and the television coverage — and presidential order clearing other channels of soap operas and similar daytime shows as a mark of respect — reflected the elevation of the church in recent years to Russia’s de facto state religion.

Interim Orthodox head, Metropolitan Kirill — head of the Church’s foreign relations office and known to millions of Russians through his regular television show — lead the highly ritualized ceremony that is little changed from Czarist times, as an off-screen commentator occasionally interpreted lines of the changed liturgy.

Kirill praised Alexy for the work he had done to lead the church back to a central position in Russian life, saying that the late patriarch, who was elected in 1990 shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, had “inherited a church weakened by decades of repression,” but was leaving it strong. The fact that the service was taking part in a cathedral blown up in 1931 on Stalin’s orders but rebuilt by public subscription in the 1990s is a testament to that.

Televised church services — particularly at Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 — have become a feature of Russia’s new year holiday schedules in recent years.

The degree to which Alexy II aligned the interests of the church with that of the state was reflected in the close relations he fostered with former President Putin, although some critics said he was too close to the Kremlin.

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