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Bulgarians line the streets of the capital to bid farewell to Orthodox Patriarch Neophyte

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarians lined the streets of Sofia on Saturday to bid farewell to the late Orthodox Patriarch Neophyte.

The spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christians died on Wednesday at the age of 78 after a long illness.

Neophyte, who became patriarch in 2013, was the first elected head of the Bulgarian church after the fall of communism in 1989. His charisma as a modest and well-tempered leader won him respect among the faithful.

Neophyte’s funeral drew religious and political leaders, as well as ordinary Bulgarians who recalled him fondly.

The patriarch’s body, covered by a gold embroidered cloth, lay in the center of Sofia’s main Alexander Nevski Cathedral, while white-robed church elders led funeral prayers under the solemn sound of bells.

Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, led the memorial service.

Bartholomew is considered first among equals among Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, which gives him prominence but not the power of a Catholic pope. Large portions of the Eastern Orthodox world are self-governing under their own patriarchs.

Orthodox Christianity is Bulgaria’s dominant religion, followed by about 85% of its 6.7 million people.

“Neophyte will be remembered as an impeccable, flawless cleric, as a fosterer of Orthodoxy and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and as a man who called for unity and unification,” said Rosen Zhelyazkov, the head of the National Assembly.

Following the memorial service, a funeral procession took Neophyte’s coffin to the St. Nedelya Cathedral, where his body was laid to rest.

Packed along the sidewalks, people stood silently paying their respects as the procession went by. The coffin was placed on a black-draped gun carriage, with the church elders and senior government officials walking behind it to the mournful tunes of a military band.

The Holy Synod of senior clergy will choose among its members an interim patriarch until a larger church council elects Neophyte’s successor within the next four months, church officials said.