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Thousands escort Bulgarian patriarch Neophyte to his final rest

SOFIA (Reuters) - Thousands of Bulgarians joined Orthodox Christian priests on Saturday in a procession carrying late Bulgarian patriarch Neophyte to a Sofia cathedral where he was laid to rest following his death on Wednesday aged 78 after a long illness.

Top Orthodox Christian clergy and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Churches worldwide, led the mass and funeral service for the softly spoken theologian in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.

Since his installment in 2013, Patriarch Neophyte had worked to restore the reputation of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, hurt by allegations of corrupt practices and links to communist secret police.

Hundreds of worshippers attended the mass, some laying flowers and crying while bidding farewell to the patriarch who laid in state in an open basket dressed in an ornate white robe and crown.

Neophyte´s remains were carried on a gun carriage - the same as used for the funeral of Bulgarian King Boris III in 1943 - in a procession escorted by thousands of clergymen and worshippers to the Saint Nedelya Cathedral where he was buried.

Local dignitaries and foreign religious figures including Epiphanius I, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, were also present.

The city centre was closed for traffic during the ceremony and high security measures introduced.

About 80% of the 6.8 million-strong Bulgarian population are Orthodox Christians. The reputation of the country's Orthodox Church was damaged after a history commission in January 2012 showed that 11 of its 15 bishops had collaborated with the former communist-era secret police.

The election of the next patriarch must take place in the next four months.

(Reporting by Spasiyana Sergieva and Stoyan Nenov; Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by David Holmes)