Faith & Reason: The promised land which the Pope may not enter

There will be only modified rapture as the Vatican returns one of Russia's most holy objects today

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Today a delegation from the Vatican will return to Russia a painting of the Virgin Mary known as the Kazan icon, one of the most important objects in the history of Russia. It ought to have been a moment of great symbolic significance. But it has gone peculiarly sour.

Today a delegation from the Vatican will return to Russia a painting of the Virgin Mary known as the Kazan icon, one of the most important objects in the history of Russia. It ought to have been a moment of great symbolic significance. But it has gone peculiarly sour.

The icon was originally created in the 13th century but is thought to have been lost, probably when it was hidden from Tatar invaders, only to be rediscovered in 1579 when a 10-year-old peasant girl named Matrona had a vision guiding her to the place where it was buried. Over the years that followed, it was credited with countless miracles, among which was the expulsion from Moscow of Polish invaders in the 17th century. The Kazan icon thus became even more than an object of great veneration but a key symbol of the Russian state.

Having gone missing just before the Russian Revolution the icon, or a version of it, turned up in the Vatican where it has been kept by Pope John Paul II in his personal apartments. The Slav Pope reckons it helped him recover from his wounds after the assassination attempt on him in 1981. But he decided that it should be returned to Russia in an attempt to thaw relations between Rome and the Russian Orthodox church, where the Cold War has continued, long after it ended in secular circles.

At one point the Pope dangled the icon as a bribe to try to secure permission for a papal visit to Russia, the one remaining country in the world which the ailing pontiff is said to still crave to visit. He showed the icon to the Russian President Vladimir Putin on a visit to Rome last year and said he would like to return it in person.

The response of the Russian church was decidedly sniffy. Its leader, His Holiness Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, told me in a rare interview earlier this year: "I think there is an unhealthy hype around the icon in the Vatican. I do not think it would make sense to make a connection between the return of this icon and a visit by Pope John Paul II." In any case, Russian art experts believe the Vatican's icon is an 18th-century copy of the 13th-century original - "one of many copies of the icon painted by a provincial iconographer," the Patriarch Alexei added dismissively, despite Vatican insistence that it is the original.

Relations between Rome and Moscow are at their lowest point for almost four decades. The long-running row between the churches is over what the Patriarch claimed is "proselytism" - aggressive Catholic missionary activity - across the former Soviet Union. And in Ukraine, he said, churches in communion with Rome have turned hundreds of thousands of Orthodox believers into a "humiliated minority". At the heart of the clash is the Patriarch's insistence that, following the collapse of Communism, Rome should leave the job of re-evangelisation to the Orthodox church which before the Red Revolution had presided over what the Patriarch called "1,000 years of holy Russia".

What emerged from our interview was the confession by the Patriarch that it is he, as head of the Russian Orthodox church, who has been for decades blocking plans for the Pope to travel to Russia. He also spoke of how he had scuppered an arrangement to meet the Pope outside Russia. "There was a plan to have such a meeting in 1997 in Austria," he revealed. But the meeting was cancelled by the Russians who wanted "more than just to meet in front of TV cameras and demonstrate to the public that there are no problems among us. We do have problems."

The Catholics insist they are not trying to convert the Orthodox. But more than 80 per cent of Russia's Catholic parishes are served by foreign priests. Most of them are better educated, financed and equipped with greater pastoral experience than their Orthodox counterparts. And Cardinal Walter Kasper, Rome's man charged with promoting Christian unity, has previously provocatively said: "This is a question of religious freedom. . . for us it is a fundamental human right."

Which is why the Pope has set aside his cherished dream of a papal trip and decided to return the Kazan icon as "a gift to the people of Russia" along with fervent prayers for better relations between the two churches. This is a real blow to John Paul II who has seen, throughout his 25-year pontificate, relations with the Orthodox as a great ecumenical priority - not just because of his Slavic background, but because the 250-million-strong block of Eastern Orthodox peoples is a far bigger prize in terms of unity than the far smaller Protestant churches of the West.

In the end, one commentator said, John Paul II may be fated to play the role of Moses: he can see the promised land, but it may be up to someone else to enter it. The idea that the land is promised to Rome, the Russians would riposte, is the heart of the problem.

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