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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Pope returns rare icon to Russia
Cardinal Walter Kasper carries icon into Kremlin church
The icon's history in Russia is shrouded in mystery
A Vatican cardinal has handed a precious icon back to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow as a personal gift from Pope John Paul II.

The image is an 18th-Century copy of one of Russia's most sacred images, the Virgin of Kazan, and was bought in the West by Roman Catholics in 1970.

Patriarch Alexy, the head of the Russian Church, thanked the Pope, who views the gift as a goodwill gesture.

But he also appealed to Rome not to try to "compete" for Russian Christians.

The icon was handed over by Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper in a ceremony at the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Assumption after a service to mark the Orthodox Feast of the Assumption.

It is expected to be housed temporarily in a chapel at Patriarch Alexy's residence until a decision is taken on its permanent home.

The original Virgin of Kazan icon, named after the eastern Russian city where it was found in 1579 and used to inspire Russian soldiers such as those who fought Napoleon in 1812, is believed to have perished.

'Orthodox territory'

Encrusted with silver and precious stones, the copy handed over at the Kremlin has been in the Pope's possession for the past 11 years.

Russian Patriarch Alexy (L) greets Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Vatican
Differences between the two Churches will remain
It was bought for $1m (556,000) from a dealer in the United States and presented to the Pope by a group of American Catholics.

Russian media say it has not been established where the icon was kept in Russia before the atheistic Revolution of 1917.

The Pope kept the painting hanging above his desk in his private apartments and showed it to Vladimir Putin when the Russian president visited the Vatican last year.

The 84-year-old pontiff has long wanted to visit Russia, but the trip has never been approved by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The two Churches have been divided since 1054, when the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity split in the Great Schism.

Speaking after the ceremony, Patriarch Alexy told reporters he hoped that the two Churches could agree not to "compete on the territory of Russia but... each minister to [its] believers".

For his part, the Pope said in a message that despite the division between Moscow and Rome, the icon was a "symbol of the unity of the followers of the only-begotten son of God".

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