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Russia: Historic Kazan Icon Stands At Center Of Religious Issues

  • Don Hill --> Pope John Paul II with the Kazan icon A little Christian icon stands this week at the center of a long-running debate between the Catholic pope in Rome and the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It is an 18th-century copy of a legendary 16th-century icon known as Mother of God of Kazan (Lady of Kazan), a depiction of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II has sought for years to deliver the icon personally to Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II, as part of a long-sought visit to Russia. But the Patriarchate has repeatedly refused to sanction the visit. RFE/RL reports that the 30-centimeter-high icon, which is due to return to Russia tomorrow, is a small symbol of a large controversy between these two branches of Christianity.

Prague, 27 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The pope evidently has given up his campaign to use the Kazan icon as a ticket to Moscow.

Pope John Paul II conducted a special service earlier this week at the Vatican to honor the return of the icon to the Russian Orthodox Church. He said that he has appointed Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican's Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to present the artifact to the Patriarchate tomorrow.

The pope said he seeks reconciliation with the Russian church.

"May [the icon] speak to [Russian Patriarch Aleksii] of the firm desire of the pope of Rome to move ahead together with them on the path of mutual understanding and reconciliation, to hasten the day of full unity among believers for which the Lord Jesus ardently prayed," John Paul said.
"This icon is not only a Christian cultural monument but also an historic one. It has made the name of Kazan known all over the world."

Vatican relations with the Patriarchate developed new strains three years ago when the pope established four new Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia. The Patriarchate has said that any meeting between Aleksii and John Paul depends first upon easing those strains. It said that the new dioceses aggravated existing problems.

In a statement in May 2003, the Patriarchate said it was astonished by the fact that the pope imbued his icon with such importance. A month earlier, a joint Russian-Vatican commission had determined that the icon possessed by the pope was an 18th-century copy made by a provincial icon-painter.

The statement also said, "In its size and character, this icon cannot be identified with either the historical miracle-working icon that appeared in 1579 in Kazan or other known and venerated icons." The copy at the Vatican is authentic, the statement said, only in the sense that it is openly a copy and not a forgery.

Vatican experts say that, upon delivery, the Vatican version will be the oldest known copy in Russia.

The Mother of God of Kazan icon has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue for five centuries.

The original is believed to have been created in the 16th century in Kazan, now the capital of the autonomous Russian republic of Tatarstan. It soon disappeared -- most likely hidden by its custodians from invaders. Russian colonization of Tatarstan began in the 16th century after the forces of Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan.

One legend says that in 1579, a young girl named Matryona Onuchina, after a vision, led people to the missing icon, buried in ashes near the Kazan fortress.

Believers housed what they considered Matryona's find in a Kazan church until 1904, when vandals stole it. Soon afterwards, police said they found fragments of the treasure, indicating that the icon had been destroyed.

An archconservative U.S. Catholic organization called the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima presented a version of the Kazan icon to the pope in 1993. The group had purchased it in 1970 from a British woman. John Paul has given it an honored place in his personal chambers since.

Until the scientific findings of last year's joint commission, some people continued to believe that the Vatican's version -- beautifully made, ornamented with precious stones, and bordered with silver -- was the 16th-century original.

One theory was that the icon stolen in 1904 and destroyed was, in fact, the copy -- and that the original had miraculously resurfaced.

The Vatican says that the copy that Cardinal Kasper will deliver to Moscow deserves special honor in any case because of its age and subject, its value and the veneration it has long been given.

Controversy could continue to follow the pope's icon even into its new home in Russia. Officials in Kazan say it belongs not in Moscow but in Kazan.

Tatar historian Dmitry Khafizov, an authority on the Kazan icon, described in a 2001 interview with RFE/RL one reason for the holy artifact's special place in Tatar hearts.

"This icon is not only a Christian cultural monument but also an historic one. It has made the name of Kazan known all over the world. It is called the Mother of God of Kazan. Not many people even know that Tatarstan's capital exists. But the majority of Christians know about the Mother of God of Kazan icon. And it was found in Kazan," Khafizov said.

A Tatar patriots' group, the Tatar Public Center, complicated the issue still further yesterday. It published an open letter to Pope John Paul. The letter says that the legend of the miraculous resurrection of the Kazan icon from ashes was a myth invented by Russian authorities.

The letter also says that -- far from being a cause for Tatar pride -- the Christian icon symbolizes Russia's colonization of traditionally Muslim Tatarstan.

The Tatar Public Center says that the pope has become enmeshed in, as the letter puts it, "indecent political games."

"That's why we consider the so-called Kazan icon a symbol of colonial oppression, enslavement and humiliation. It's immoral to talk about the emergence of the icon without taking into account the historic context of the colonial conquest of the Tatar lands and the tragic fate of the Tatar nation. The Almighty would not bless conquerors for such atrocities," said Rashid Yagfarov, chairman of the Tatar Public Center.

Tatarstan's population is divided almost equally between ethnic Russians and mainly Muslim Tatars. Islam is undergoing a resurgence in Tatarstan since the collapse of communism in Russia.

Kazan Mayor Kamil Iskhakov journeyed to Rome in 2000 to ask for the icon to be repatriated to Kazan. The pope referred the request to Patriarch Aleksii. But the patriarch took offense, labeling Iskhakov's initiative, as he put it, "amateur" and denouncing John Paul's meeting with the mayor as "provocation."

Mayor Iskhakov traveled to Rome this week, possibly to accompany the icon on its trip to Moscow, and to renew his appeal for it to be housed once more in the city from which it takes its name.

(Rim Guilfanov of RFE/RL's Tatar Service assisted with this report.)