08/27/2004, 00.00
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Our Lady of Kazan's journey home between fresh hopes and old wars

Russian Orthodox, Tartars and Catholics confront the Pope's act of friendship.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – "The Moscow Patriarchate is grateful to the Vatican for returning the icon of Our Lady of Kazan; however, it is still waiting for more meaningful steps before relations between the two Churches can be improved," this according to archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, Vice-President of the Department of external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

"It is hoped that this symbolic undertaking will be followed by others, more meaningful for our believers, and that they will improve Orthodox-Catholic relations," Father Chaplin added.

For this reason the archpriest said that the Patriarchate expects the Catholic Church to undertake the following "meaningful steps", namely reject any missionary activity and proselytising among people who are Orthodox by belief, baptism and spiritual roots, and rectify the present position of Russian Orthodox believers in the western regions of the Ukraine.

"Many icons and relics are coming back to Russia after being taken out of the country during the time when our Church was persecuted," Father Chaplin said. "The icon of Kazan is one such example. The faithful are grateful whenever a relic is returned; however, the Vatican's return of Our Lady of Kazan must not be seen as only an act of good will, but also one of simple justice."

Beyond the official statements, it still remains to be determined whether Moscow Catholics will be allowed to take part in the solemn transfer ceremony scheduled for tomorrow morning at the Cathedral of the Dormition inside the Kremlin. Thus far the only Catholics expected to be present are the members of the official Vatican delegation and some journalists who have arrived form Rome.
The Vatican's decision not to present the icon for prayer in Moscow's Catholic Cathedral has been dutifully accepted by local Catholics. None the less, some voices have been raised criticising the decision.

One of those who asked that the Marian image be displayed for a night vigil said: "We still have questions which we would like our Vatican guests to answer. We cannot understand why Catholics in Moscow are not as good as those in Rome? Why is it, that it was possible to display the icon for prayer in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome all day yesterday and impossible in Moscow today?"

Russian Catholics are evidently hard pressed to find any logic in the Vatican decision. "If, out of respect for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch is supposed to be the first person to see the icon after receiving it from Cardinal Kasper, why the exception for Catholics in Rome?," the Moscow Catholic asked. "Is it true there are second class Catholics in the Universal Church?," he added.

In the meantime, Mintimer Shaymiev, President of the Republic of Tatarstan (800 km east of Moscow), one of the Russian Federation's 21 republics, expressed "his personal hope" and that "of many of his compatriots" that the icon be moved to Kazan, Tatarstan's capital. Any decision to move the icon to Kazan is however a prerogative of Patriarch Alexis II.

President Shaymiew called the Pope's decision "an act of good will and proof of his desire to see a dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Churches get underway."

Returning the icon to Kazan –the place where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared– is however a much more difficult issue, linked as it is to a conflict between Moscow and Tatar separatists. It is certain that, if President Shaymiev is hopeful that the icon's return might further his policy of interethnic coexistence in a republic shared by Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Tartar nationalists have staked a position against it. In fact, as Kazan's Muslim mayor, K. S. Ishakov, was taking part on August 25 to the transfer ceremony in Rome in the presence of the Pope, Tatar nationalists were demonstrating in the streets of the Tatar capital shouting "Kazan: heart of Russian Muslims", whilst, In Liberty Square in downtown Kazan, members of the 'All-Tatar Public Centre" were staging a demonstration under the banner "Release Tatarstan from Moscow slavery".

For Tatar nationalists the icon should not come to Kazan. It is a symbol of Moscow's subjugation and colonial oppression, and remains a symbol of Tatar humiliation. Demonstrators urged the Pope and the Vatican not to fall for the games played at the expense of Muslim religious sentiments.

According to Roman Lunkin, an Orthodox Church expert, "the desire of the Moscow Patriarchate to receive the icon whilst making accusations reflects the overall anti-western position of the official Church." And this position has pitted Patriarch Alexis II against Russia's President Vladimir Putin over an eventual Papal visit to Moscow.

After his official visit to Rome in November 2003, the Russian president did express a desire to see the Holy Father visit Moscow. Such a visit was part of a wider strategy designed to open up Russia's foreign policy. Conversely, the Patriarch has steadfastly refused to meet the Pope.

"The Pope's decision to give Our Lady of Kazan to the Patriarch is never the less a sign that the two Churches have something in common and an attempt to overcome mutual distrust," Mr Lunkin said. "Only Orthodox nationalists and Tatar separatists can see in the icon something contentious, a throwback to bygone wars." (AF)

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