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Helicopter crash kills top cleric

Air and Space Accidents

ATHENS, Greece (CNN) -- Egypt's Patriarch of Alexandria, a top leader of the Greek Orthodox church, is among 17 people killed in a helicopter crash off northern Greece.

The military aircraft, which was carrying a delegation of religious officials, crashed into the Aegean Sea on Saturday, according to a Greek Defense Ministry official.

Seven bodies have been recovered and rescuers are searching for the other 10 people who were aboard the helicopter.

Patriarch Petros of Alexandria, the head of the 300,000 Christian Orthodox congregation in Africa, was on the flight with 11 other church officials and five crew members, Lt. Gen. Nikos Douvas said.

"We are devastated from this tragic accident where the Patriarch of Alexandria, venerable clerics, his staff and the crew lost their lives," Church of Greece leader Archbishop Christodoulos told the Reuters news agency.

The Chinook helicopter, on a flight to a monestary in Mount Athos, fell of radar screens about 10 miles (16 kms) off the coast of Cape Akras in the Aegean Sea, Douvas said.

So far there has been no confirmation that it crashed, the report said.

Patriarch Petros, 55, was born in Cyprus. His African congregation is one of the world's oldest, dating back to the time of St. Mark.

Church of Greece spokesman Epifanios Economou told Reuters 55-year-old Petros was a respected church leader who breathed new life into the Patriarchate and the entire Orthodox Church in Africa since being elected as the 115th Patriarch of Alexandria in 1997.

Journalist Anthee Carassava contributed to this report.

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