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Vatican returns Russian icon to mend Orthodox Church ties

18th-century replica said to perform miracles

MOSCOW -- A Russian icon that hung for years in the private chapel of Pope John Paul II returned home to the Russian Orthodox Church yesterday, a gesture that the ailing pontiff hopes will improve relations between the two churches.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II formally accepted the 18th-century replica of the Mother of God of Kazan icon from Cardinal Walter Kasper, who headed the Vatican delegation, at a three-hour Orthodox service in the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral.

With incense smoke hanging in the air and candles flickering, Alexy said "this revered icon recalls for us the time of the ancient undivided church." As he spoke, Orthodox priests in ornate robes and caps stood along one side, facing a small delegation of Catholic priests clad in black vestments and priestly collars.

The 84-year-old John Paul, the Roman Catholic Church's first Slavic pope, has long hoped to visit Russia, and initially considered returning the icon himself.

But while the collapse of the atheist Soviet state made it possible to conceive of such a visit, the faith free-for-all that followed in Russia soured relations between the churches, giving birth to a new kind of antagonism and distrust a millennium after the Great Schism divided Christianity into eastern and western branches.

The Orthodox Church has accused the Vatican of trying to poach converts among Russian Orthodox believers, and Alexy has made it clear that the pope is not yet welcome in Russia. The Catholic Church counters that it is trying to minister to the small Catholic community -- about 600,000 people, or less than 1 percent of Russia's 144 million.

Kasper told the Russians that by returning the icon, the Catholic Church hoped to convey its deep respect for the Russian people's fidelity to their faith despite suffering and persecution.

"Despite the division which sadly still persists between Christians, this sacred icon appears as a symbol of the unity of the followers of the only begotten son of God," the pope told Alexy.

The 12-by-10-inch icon, taken to the West after the 1917 Russian Revolution, was presented to the pope by a Catholic group in 1993 and has hung in his private chapel. It shows the faces of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus surrounded by gold, inlaid with precious stones.

The original icon, which first appeared in the Volga River city of Kazan in 1579, is revered by Russian believers for its purported ability to work miracles, including the rout of Polish invaders from Russia in the early 17th century. It hung in the Kazan Cathedral on Moscow's Red Square and the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg before disappearing.

A joint commission including representatives of the Vatican, the Russian church, and the Russian Culture Ministry examined the pope's icon last year and determined it dated from around the 18th century. The pope has said that it is dear to him, noting that it "has watched over his daily work," and the Vatican has emphasized this in talking about its return. Many Russians also believe that the replica icons are capable of working miracles and regard them with great reverence.

In accepting the icon, Alexy said he hoped this step would be followed by others.

"We need to get away from a relationship based on competition," the Orthodox Church's Father Vsevolod Chaplin said.

For some of the Russian Orthodox worshipers who filled the church, the icon's return already represented a big step toward improving official ties.

"Not only has this holy icon come home, but our churches celebrated its homecoming together," said Irina Trukachova, a retiree.

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