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Russian icon comes home again
Pope returns stolen treasure to St Petersburg

In an ecumenical gesture Pope John Paul II returned the 13th-century icon of Our Lady of Kazan that had been stolen in the early 20th century from the Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg. After two days of elaborate public liturgical celebrations in Rome, the Vatican delegation, led by the pope’s top ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, handed over the icon to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexis II in a ceremony in the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin, Moscow on 28 August.

The icon, said to have been miraculously discovered in 1579 by a young girl in the charred ruins of the city of Kazan on the Volga, was adopted as the standard of Russian troops who credited it with defeating their enemies—Tatars, Poles, Swedes, French and Germans—so that it came to be revered as the “protector of Russia” by Orthodox Christians. Several thousand churches were dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, including cathedrals in Moscow and St Petersburg. The icon was, however, stolen in 1904 and its whereabouts remained a mystery until the 1970s when it was offered for auction in San Francisco. Following negotiations, it was bought for an undisclosed sum in installments over a five-year period by a US-based Catholic group, the Blue Army of of the World Apostolate of Fatima, who presented it to the Vatican where it was placed in the papal apartments. The Russian faithful agitated for its return and resented its possession by the Catholic Church. The pope hopes its restoration will bring the separated churches closer together.

In July, President Putin joined a crowd of thousands at the Tikhvin Assumption Monastery outside St Petersburg to see the restitution to Russia by the Garklav family of Chicago of another revered icon, Our Lady of Tikhvin. According to tradition, St Luke painted the icon in the first century AD, but it is first mentioned in 14th-century documents. Legend has it that the icon appeared floating over the town of Tikhvin in 1383 and that it descended into the hands of priests who understood this to indicate the site where they were to build their monastery. The Bolsheviks closed the monastery after 1917 and sent the icon to the ancient Russian city of Pskov, which was occupied and looted by Germans during World War II. Retreating Germans sent the icon to Riga, Latvia in 1944 where the Orthodox archbishop, Janis Garklav, gained possession of it. He emigrated to the US in 1949 and the icon remained in his family’s possession on the condition that it would be returned to Russia when the monastery had been rebuilt. Restoration of the monastery began several years ago, and is now nearing completion.