Russian Orthodox Church head dies

Patriarch Alexiy II, the head of Russia's powerful Orthodox Church, has died at his residence at the age of 79, a church spokesman said today.

A spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church said Alexiy had died on Friday morning at his residence in Peredelkino outside Moscow.

The Church never commented on Alexiy's health and did not immediately disclose a cause of death but diplomats in Moscow had said that the patriarch had been suffering from cancer.

Head of the Russian Orthodox Church for the past 18 years, the Estonian-born Alexiy was an influential figure with close links to the Kremlin.

He oversaw a major religious revival in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with hundreds of new churches built across the country.

In a first reaction, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he was "so shocked that it is very hard for me to find words on the spot", Interfax news agency reported. "I respected him deeply".

Russian television immediately began running excerpts from what it said was Alexiy's last television interview at the end of October.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who was on an official visit to India, was expected to make a statement on the death shortly.