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Pope returns icon to Russia July 13, 2004
John Hooper in Rome

An ecumenical matter: The Madonna of Kazan.

Pope John Paul is to remove one of the Orthodox church's most revered icons from his private chapel and dispatch it to Moscow in an attempt to improve the Vatican's tense relations with the Russian Orthodox hierarchy.
The Madonna of Kazan has been a bone of contention between the two branches of Christianity since it was first hung in the papal apartments 11 years ago. It is to be handed over to the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexis II, at a ceremony in September.

The Vatican's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said the pontiff hoped it would "be a contribution to the greatly to be desired unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches".

Pope John Paul's gesture comes against a background of recently improved relations between the churches.

It also marks the end of an attempt by the Vatican to use the icon to fulfil the pontiff's dream of visiting Russia. John Paul had hoped to return it in person last year on a visit to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, but the idea had to be scrapped because of hostility from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, which accuses the Vatican of fishing for converts in the old Soviet Union.

Last February, after a meeting between Alexis II and the Pope's top ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a working group was set up to examine the two churches' differences.

The Madonna of Kazan is thought to date from the 13th century.

It has been credited with helping the Russians to victories against the Tatars, the Poles, the Swedes, the French and the Germans.

It has disappeared twice. The first time, it was rediscovered beneath the charred ruins of Kazan by a young girl in 1579, in what the Orthodox faithful regarded as a miracle.

In 1904, it was stolen from the cathedral of Kazan in St Petersburg.

Its subsequent history is unclear, but it was eventually bought at an auction by a group of Catholics associated with the shrine at Fatima in Portugal, and donated to the Pope.



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