ATHENS, Greece – The Patriarch of Alexandria, the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians in Africa, died Saturday when a helicopter taking him and fellow churchmen to a monastic enclave in northern Greece crashed into the sea, government and church officials said.
The Army helicopter, carrying 12 passengers and a four-member crew, disappeared from radar screens at 11 a.m. as it approached the monastic community of Mount Athos.
Hours later, bodies and wreckage were found about five miles off the coast of northern Greece, army and coast guard officials said.
Rescue workers said the body of Patriarch Petros VII of Alexandria was among seven retrieved from the wreckage. The six other recovered bodies have not been identified.
“The government expresses its grief for today’s accident and its tragic consequences,” said government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos. “It is a great loss for the Patriarchate of Alexandria and for the Orthodox Church.”
Petros was the spiritual leader of the estimated 300,000 Christian Orthodox throughout Africa.
Orthodox church leaders expressed their grief.
“We are devastated upon receiving the information,” said Archbishop Christodoulos, the leader of the Orthodox Church of Greece.
Others passengers on board the helicopter included Metropolitan Bishop of Carthage Chrysostomos, Metropolitan Bishop of Pelusim Ireneus, and Bishop of Magadascar Nectarios, said Lt. Gen. Nikos Douvas, who was coordinating rescue efforts.
The twin-engine army Chinook took off from Elefsina airport near Athens at 9:30 a.m., and vanished from radar screens at 11 a.m. as it approached the monastic community.
Three Navy ships, a C-130 transport airplane and two Super Puma helicopters were searching for survivors, but strong winds were hampering rescue efforts, authorities said.
Petros’ church – one of the more than dozen autocephalous, or self-governing, Orthodox churches – traces its roots to St. Mark and includes one of the oldest Christian congregations in the world.
Petros, 55, was born in Cyprus and ordained in 1969. A year later he became a deacon in the patriarchate of Alexandria and then served in a variety of church positions throughout Africa.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 200 million Orthodox Christians led by the so-called “first among equals” among the patriarchs, Bartholomew I, who is based in Istanbul, Turkey – the former Byzantine capital of Constantinople.