NEW YORK (AP) _ Archbishop Geron Iakovos, who has led the Greek Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere since 1959, will retire on his 85th birthday next year, church officials said Tuesday.

Iakovos cited his age and health in deciding to step down on July 29, church leaders said in a statement issued from Istanbul, Turkey.

The former president of the World Council of Churches has long been considered a dean of religious leaders in the United States.

He was an early supporter of civil rights, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and received the Medal of Freedom from President Carter in 1980. Last year, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton praised him for helping ``make the nation better.''

``He has been a leader, a light,'' said Father Basil Kissal of the St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Washington, D.C. ``He's given almost four decades of his life to serve this archdiocese, he's given it a lifetime of direction and love.''

He has also been credited with working for Christian unity throughout his career. In 1959, he became the first Greek Orthodox emissary in more than 400 years to meet with a Roman Catholic pope, John XXIII.

Born on the island of Imbros, Turkey, Iakovos was ordained a priest in Lowell, Mass., in 1940. He became a bishop in 1955 and was elevated to the title of metropolitan in 1956. He became archbishop of the Americas in 1950.

Iakovos, who is in Athens, Greece, planned to meet with reporters after he returns to the United States on Aug. 31, a church official said.