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Inter-church politics will decide famous icon’s fate

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Negotiations to return one of Russia’s most venerated miracle-working icons, known as The Mother of God of Kazan, have taken place between the Vatican and politicians from the autonomous Russian republic of Tatarstan. Meanwhile, Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II has remained in the background, reportedly angered at being bypassed in the process.

The icon has become a lever in deteriorating relations between Russian Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs. The ecumenical office for the Russian Orthodox church, Metropolitan Kiril, chairman of the church’s department for external church relations, recently described those relations as in a state of “cold war.” Officials of the Russian Orthodox church have asked the pope to postpone his visit to the region, scheduled for late June.

The Blue Army of Our Lady of Fátima bought the icon, a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus, in 1970 and gave it to Pope John Paul II nearly a decade ago. The Russian Orthodox faithful would regard the pope’s decision to return this beloved symbol as a significant goodwill gesture. A historian of Russian Orthodoxy from Smith College, Vera Shevzov, noted that before the 1917 revolution the Mother of God of Kazan was one of the most famous icons in Russia. “It was very much tied to the Russian national identity and to the Orthodox collective identity,” she said. “It represented special protection of that country through Mary.”

Russian news outlets have suggested that the icon is being used to leverage an invitation from the Russian Orthodox church for a papal visit to Russia. Tensions between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, stemming from disputes over church property in Russia, are a key reason for Alexei’s steely resistance to a papal visit.

A visit to Moscow for the sake of returning the icon to Alexei would greatly benefit the pope’s efforts to warm the chilly relations between Moscow and Rome.

The icon’s convoluted history reads like The Maltese Falcon, though there has been no murder. The icon is credited with numerous miracles, military victories and healings. After its 13th-century creation, it was lost, probably hidden from Tatar invaders, only to be rediscovered in 1579. A 10-year-old peasant girl named Matrona had a vision guiding her to the place where it was buried in a cloth under a stove.

Among the miracles credited to the icon was the expulsion from Moscow of Polish invaders in the 17th century.

The icon was stolen from Russia in 1904, and accounts of ownership differ after that. After the Blue Army bought the icon in 1970, it was moved to Fátima, Portugal, and housed in a Byzantine-style chapel. In 1993 the Blue Army presented it to Pope John Paul II who reportedly keeps it in his private quarters. The Blue Army sees the fate of this icon as being tied to the Fátima prophecy that “Russia will be converted.”

Last October, Kazan’s mayor, Kamil Iskhakov, along with a high-ranking adviser representing Tatarstan’s president, met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican to discuss returning the icon to Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan. During the meeting the pope expressed his willingness to return the icon to Kazan but said the matter should first be discussed with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II.

Seemingly blindsided by news of this meeting, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei expressed concern that the icon’s future has become a matter of diplomatic and political bartering.

Agnes Kefeli, a Tatar language expert with the Arizona State University Critical Languages Institute, noted that the return of the icon directly to Kazan could be a coup for Kazan and an embarrassment for Moscow. “It will be interesting to see who gets it,” Kefeli said.

Orthodox officials in Moscow have consistently expressed their doubts about the icon’s authenticity. The Russian newspaper Izvestiia reported that Russian art experts believe the Vatican’s icon is an 18th-century copy of the 13-century original. Vatican sources insist that their Mother of God of Kazan is from the 13th century.

Fr. John Matusiak, communications director for the Orthodox Church in America, remembers the icon. “I saw it at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1964.” He said, “I questioned then whether I was looking at the original.” He added that even copies are spiritually valuable.

Historian Shevzov noted that the Russian Orthodox faithful could see the icon’s return as a sign of religious affairs returning to normal. Because of this, she said, “It almost doesn’t matter” whether the Vatican’s icon is the original 13th-century work or not.

Alexei seems caught between post-Soviet politicians eager to normalize Orthodox-Catholic religious relations in their formerly communist lands, and his desire to mollify those Russian Orthodox who remain hostile toward Catholicism. The patriarch and politicians are now playing a waiting game. All reports consistently state that Pope John Paul II has agreed to return the Mother of God of Kazan, but no dates have been set.

A Russian daily, Sevodnya, quoted a Tatarstan presidential spokesman as saying, “Everything is at the pope’s mercy. Alexei is ready to come to Kazan and meet the icon if the Vatican decides to give it back. The next step is to be done by the pope.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001