The Patriarch of Alexandria, Peter VII, one of the most senior figures in the Greek Orthodox Church, was killed along with 16 others in a helicopter crash in the Aegean Sea, church and government officials said.
The patriarch, the spiritual leader of Greek Orthodox Christians in Africa, was heading to the Mount Athos monastery in northern Greece, one of the holiest sites in Orthodox Christianity, in an army helicopter when the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.
Military ships and planes launched a rescue operation and found wreckage and bodies in the water 5.5 nautical miles off the Halkidiki peninsula where Mount Athos is located.
Government spokesman Theodore Roussopoulos said the helicopter had delayed its landing on Mount Athos because the patriarch had asked to first be flown over the site.
Seven bodies had been recovered by late Saturday, but none had so far been officially identified, the military said. A military source said the crash was almost certainly accidental in nature, but that its cause was still unknown.
The Greek government confirmed the death of the 55-year-old patriarch, who was the second most senior figure in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis expressed his “deep pain” at the death and said the crash was a “great loss for the Orthodox church, Hellenism, and the armed forces.”
Monsignor Christodoulos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, spoke of his “great pain” following the accident, which took place about two hours into the flight to Mount Athos.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was saddened to learn of the death and sent his condolences to the families the crash victims and to the Greek Orthodox community, his spokesman said.
Sixteen other people were on board the Greek army Chinook helicopter: the patriarch’s brother, several Alexandrian and other Orthodox clerics, and five crew members.
An Australian, Bishop Nektarios of Madagascar, was among the dead, the foreign ministry said.
Greek Defence Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos said rescuers were still recovering bodies from the sea among the helicopter debris. A ship specialised in underwater searches would arrive at the crash site on Sunday, he added.
He said an inquiry would be set up to determine the cause of the accident, adding that the helicopter had been bought 18 months ago and was “very safe.”
The aircraft vanished from radar screens shortly after 11:00 am (0800 GMT), when the pilot warned that he was losing altitude.
The patriarch had been on his way to make his first official visit to the semi-autonomous monastic republic of Mount Athos, a centre of Eastern Orthodoxy, since his appointment in 1997.
The Cyprus Orthodox Church called Saturday on its clergy to hold special memorial services across the island nation for the crash victims, several of whom, including the patriarch himself, were Cypriots.
Peter VII was greatly respected for his work on improving Orthodox relations with the Coptic and Roman Catholic Churches, as well as for his many humanitarian commitments in Africa.
A speaker of Arabic and English, he held a variety of positions in the Orthodox Church of Alexandria and across Africa before becoming patriarch.
Born in Cyprus on September 3, 1949, Peter entered a seminary at the age of 12 and, following theological studies in Greece, joined the Alexandrian church in Cairo in 1970.
In 1980, he took up office in Johannesburg, followed by Cameroon and West Africa in 1994.
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