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    Pope hails election of Metropolitan Kirill as Russian patriarch

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    Pope Benedict XVI said on Wednesday he "received with gladness" the news of Metropolitan Kirill's election as the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

    VATICAN CITY, January 28 (RIA Novosti) - Pope Benedict XVI said on Wednesday he "received with gladness" the news of Metropolitan Kirill's election as the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

    "I warmly congratulate you and wish you every strength and joy in the fulfillment of the great task that lies before you," the head of the Roman Catholic Church said in a telegram to the new patriarch.

    Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad was elected as the 16th Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia on Tuesday by the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. A total of 700 ballots were cast, with Kirill receiving 508 votes, the second candidate, Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, getting 169 votes, and the remaining 23 declared invalid.

    Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk, who had been on the three-person shortlist, withdrew his candidacy on Tuesday, urging the electors to vote for Kirill, the metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.

    Metropolitan Kirill succeeds Patriarch Alexy II, who died in December at the age of 79 after leading the revival of the world's largest Orthodox church since 1990. This was the first election of a patriarch since the breakup of the atheist Soviet Union.

    The 700-plus-member group had been expected to work until Thursday, but said it would complete its session ahead of time on Wednesday evening.

    Kirill, 62, is well-known in Russia through his weekly television program and frequent public appearances, but has good contacts with the Roman Catholic Church after more than a decade as the Russian Orthodox Church's head of external relations. He has led dialogue with the Vatican, a sensitive issue for the two churches, which split almost 1,000 years ago.

    "May the Almighty also bless your efforts to seek that fullness of communion which is the goal of Catholic-Orthodox collaboration and dialogue," Pope Benedict said in his message.

    Metropolitan Kirill met with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican after his election in April 2005, and then in May 2006 and December 2007. The patriarch-elect, who is seen as a modernizer, has called for a thaw in relations between the two churches.

    The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said in an official statement that the Roman Catholic Church congratulated Metropolitan Kirill and raised hopes for better ties between the churches despite the "difficulties."

    "We are happy that the new patriarch is a person with whom we had brotherly relations for many years," the statement said.

    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin congratulated Metropolitan Kirill on his election.

    Medvedev "expressed hope that the dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state in the country's further development and strengthening spiritual and moral values will continue," his spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said.

    The new patriarch is expected to be enthroned on Sunday.

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