Cablegate: Pope Returns Icon to Orthodox, Hoping for Thaw In

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958 N/A

Refs: A) Vatican 2671, B) Vatican 1171


1. (SBU) Pope John Paul II is returning a copy of an
historic icon of the Virgin Mary to the Russian Orthodox
Church, a gesture he hopes will help thaw relations between
Rome and Moscow. The Pope had wanted to return the icon to
Moscow in person, but continued coolness from Orthodox
Patriarch Alexei II to a Papal visit prompted the Pope to
entrust the return to a high-level Vatican delegation.
Alexei has downplayed the Pope's conciliatory gesture,
taking great pains to emphasize that the image of Our Lady
of Kazan is not the revered historic icon, but "one of many
copies." The recent visit to Rome by the Ecumenical
Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I (ref a), and a
few hopeful signs for Catholics in Russia have given the
Vatican's Orthodox watchers some hope for better times in
this ecumenical relationship. However, the predominant
view in Vatican City is that that this gesture is unlikely
to be reciprocated as long as Alexei II remains Patriarch.
End Summary.

Icon Returns to Russia

2. (U) Pope John Paul II has decided to return a copy of an
historic icon of the Virgin Mary to the Russian Orthodox
Church. At a farewell event in Vatican City August 25, the
Pontiff expressed his hope that the gesture would
contribute to efforts to bring Rome and Moscow a step
closer to unity. The icon, a copy of the precious Madonna
of Kazan, probably dating from the seventeenth or
eighteenth century, was likely taken out of Russia in the
early twentieth century. It changed hands several times in
ensuing years until it was exhibited at the World's Fair in
New York in 1964-65. An American Catholic organization
later bought the icon, and gave it to the Pope in 1993.
Although John Paul II would have preferred to return the
icon personally, the cool response to his wish by Orthodox
Patriarch Alexei II left the Pope with little choice but to
entrust the task to a high-level Vatican delegation led by
the Head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity,
Cardinal Walter Kasper. Kasper and his team, including
Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, will hold talks
with Orthodox officials on the margins of the hand-over
ceremony scheduled for August 28 (ref b).

Patriarch Downplays Gesture

3. (U) Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II has downplayed the
Pope's conciliatory gesture, taking great pains to
emphasize that the image of Our Lady of Kazan is not the
revered historic icon, but "one of many copies." When the
Vatican floated the idea that the Pope might personally
present Alexei with the icon, the Russian prelate told
journalists that there was no reason for the Pope to be
involved in the transfer, since the icon is not the
original. The Patriarch further called for the Holy See to
match its gesture with actions in putting an end to what it
regards as proselytism among Russia's Orthodox communities
- a charge the Vatican rejects

But Other Orthodox See Goodwill

4. (U) Despite the lack of authenticity, public interest
in the icon has been high, and the gesture has been widely
seen as a sincere effort to improve relations with the
Orthodox Church. A large crowd, including Orthodox clergy,
took part in the August 25 weekly Papal audience at which
the Pope bade farewell to the icon, which he has kept in
his private chapel. The Pope responded to one of them in a
voice stronger than we have heard recently, saying that "it
is with deep emotion that I . . . give thanks to Divine
Providence which has allowed me today to send to the
venerable Patriarch of Moscow and all Russians, the gift of
this holy icon." At the end of the ceremony Catholic and
Orthodox clergy processed out of the hall together. Rome-
based media have reported enthusiasm for the Pope's gesture
from Orthodox clergy in Rome, and noted that a group of
Moscow Catholics has asked Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz
Kondrusiewicz if it can venerate the icon when it arrives
in Russia. However, Kondrusiewicz made it clear that
ecumenical courtesy would mean Patriarch Alexei would be

the first to see the icon.

Some Good News from Russia

5. (U) While the Pope has not gotten his long-awaited
invitation to Russia, the Holy See has been buoyed by
recent news that the Russian government has given the
Catholic diocese of Saratov full legal recognition.
Similar status has already been given to the Catholic
archdiocese in Moscow, and church officials are hoping to
have the same courtesy extended to the remaining two
dioceses in Siberia. The legal status facilitates the
churches activities, including new construction and

Comment: Low Expectations of Alexei

6.(SBU) Alexei's dismissive attitude towards Vatican
reconciliation efforts has been a constant in Catholic
Russian Orthodox relations in recent years. The Patriarch
has repeatedly condemned alleged Catholic proselytism on
Orthodox turf and warned against Rome's initiatives to
shore up its presence in Russia by elevating the status of
its ecclesiastical jurisdictions. From the Holy See's
perspective, it seems that all gestures of rapprochement
are automatically snubbed and treated with paranoid

7. (SBU) Despite Alexei's continued snubs, Pope John Paul
II and the Vatican can be expected to continue their
efforts to reach out to the Russian Orthodox. However, it
is clear that this relationship will remain more difficult
than the more promising relations the Holy See enjoys with
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the "first among equals"
in the Orthodox world. The Holy See knows that its
gestures towards the Russian Orthodox are unlikely to be
reciprocated in any meaningful way while Alexei II is
Patriarch. Nevertheless, the Vatican, with its ability to
take the long view, is willing to wait -- having already
survived the more than ten centuries of separation between
the two churches. In the meantime, the Holy See will
continue to press for closer cooperation and "communion" to
combat what it regards as the common threat to the Roman
Catholic and Orthodox worlds from Europe's aggressive
secularism. End comment.



2004VATICA03308 - Classification: UNCLASSIFIED

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