Friday, February 01, 2008

Thousands mourn death of Greek Orthodox archbishop

Thu Jan 31, 2008 8:40am EST

By Karolos Grohmann

ATHENS (Reuters) - Bells tolled across Athens and canon shots were fired as Greece on Thursday buried the head of its Church, Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos, with a funeral befitting a head of state.

Tens of thousands of mourners followed a funeral procession through the city centre to Athens cemetery as public offices and schools were shut on a day of nationwide mourning for the passing of the head of the country's powerful church.

Christodoulos, who mended ties with the Vatican but clashed with the Greek state, died after a seven-month battle with cancer on Monday at the age of 69. The Church said a successor would be elected by the Holy Synod on February 7.

Supporters shouted "Goodbye" as flowers rained down from the crowd onto his body, perched high on a platform towed by a military truck.

"He was the shining light in my life, giving me courage, strength and faith," said Soula Athanasopoulou, 69, who traveled from the northern port city of Thessaloniki for the funeral. "I could not be anywhere else today."

She stood outside Athens cathedral with thousands of other black-clad mourners, many weeping and others sitting quietly for hours on the pavement.

Christodoulos, who became the youngest head of the powerful Church of Greece in 1998, won over Greeks with his laid-back approach and media-friendly image but his fierce clashes with the state eventually drove some of his flock away.

Earlier President Karolos Papoulias, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis as well as ministers, church delegates and a 12-member delegation from the Vatican, attended the funeral mass at the cathedral.

Mourners lined the streets as the funeral procession, including military units, hundreds of priests and a band wound its way past the parliament to the cemetery, where Christodoulos was buried amid the loud weeping of dozens of clerics.

"He gave young people the respect that other older people never showed us," student Stamatis Apostolou, 28, said. "I am here today to thank him for that."

Tens of thousands of Greeks paid their respects during a three-day wake, queuing for as many as four hours.

"With his actions our brother enriched the Church of Greece," Orthodox Patriach Bartholomew said in a brief speech.

Athens mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis said in his speech: "Today we bid farewell to an important Greek. We hope your work will find competent successors."

The head of about 10 million Greek Orthodox faithful, Christodoulos was a staunch defender of the role of the church in Greece.

He is credited with improving ties with the Vatican, agreeing to a 2001 visit by Pope John Paul that marked a turning point in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches following the Great Schism of 1054 that split Christianity.

But a bitter feud with the then socialist government over new ID cards -- which according to European Union directives no longer listed a person's religion --, his frequent tirades against the EU and European culture and negative references to Turks and homosexuals chipped away at his popularity.

(Editing by XX)

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