The cave temple is in Russia’s Voronezh Oblast near the border with Ukraine.
The Icon of the Virgin Mary of Sicilia Cave Temple is named for the icon kept inside that, according to church legend, was carried to the site by Orthodox Christians fleeing Catholic persecution in Sicily around the 15th century.
The temple is carved out of a chalk pillar remaining from a prehistoric sea that once covered the area. The unique site has been a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians since 1830, when the swift end of a cholera outbreak in the region was attributed to the Sicilian icon in the temple. Last year a reported 91,000 tourists and religious pilgrims visited the site.
The famous Sicilian icon behind glass inside the chalk pillar.
The expansive temple -- which has several stories -- has been managed by the Divnogorye Museum-Reserve since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2015, the museum's management began the process of getting the temple listed as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But that application is in jeopardy after an Orthodox diocese applied to manage the temple. A 2010 law allows the Russian Orthodox Church to apply for ownership of state-owned religious properties.
Marina Lylova, one of the founders of the museum that oversees the temple, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service she worries about the fragile site if the church takes control, and points to another nearby cave complex that was transferred to the Orthodox Church that she claims had its historical interior “destroyed” by renovations.
Lylova says the ancient Cave Monastery of St. John The Baptist (pictured) had tiles laid by the Orthodox church management “because the chalk [floor] stained clothes.” Historical irregularities in the interior were also smoothed over. Lylova told RFE/RL that if the church gains control of the Sicilia cave temple “there is no hope, even with all the assurances and promises, it will retain its current appearance.”
The back of the temple, which towers over a spectacular view of the Don River basin.
A petition against the transfer of the temple to the church has more than 5,000 signatures, citing the potential loss of income for the Divnogorye Museum-Reserve and the disruption such a transfer would cause to the UNESCO World Heritage application.
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