VATICAN CITY -- The icon of Our Lady of Kazan, seen by many Russians as the most holy of all Russian Orthodox icons, was thought to have been lost decades ago.

Now comes astonishing news: Nikolai Sorokin of the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported today that the icon not only has been rediscovered, it is inside the Vatican -- indeed, in Pope John Paul II's private chapel -- and that the Pope this week agreed to return it to Russia.

Is the news true? This much is certain: the mayor of Kazan, Kamil Ishkakov -- during a visit that was entirely overlooked by the world's press -- did come to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II on October 26.

What did the two men discuss? According to Ishkakov: the icon and prospects for the construction of a Catholic cathedral in Kazan. "The Pope himself brought up the subject of the icon, which is kept in his chapel and to which he prays twice a day," Ishkakov said in today's Itar-Tass report.

The Vatican press office has made no official comment.

But Inside the Vatican has been told by several reliable sources that an icon believed to be the authentic icon of Our Lady of Kazan is indeed in Rome, inside the Vatican, in the papal apartments.

There appears to have been some uncertainty as to whether the icon in the Pope's possession is truly the original icon of Our Lady of Kazan, or just a very early copy. Religious art experts from Russia visited the Vatican earlier this year to try to make a determination on this point, Inside the Vatican has been told.

Ishkakov's statements suggest that the scholars conclude the icon is authentic.

According to Itar-Tass, the icon of Our Lady of Kazan was stolen from Kazan , the capital of Tatarstan located about 600 miles due east from Moscow, in 1904.

The icon's whereabouts during the 96 years since are a mystery.

At some time between 1904 and about 1950, the icon evidently was smuggled out of Russia to the West.

Then, under circumstances still unclear, an American, John Haffert, the founder of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima (he is now 85 and lives in Florida) purchased the icon. This occurred "sometime in the 1950s, I think," recalled Harry Annan, head of the Canadian branch of the Blue Army, in an interview with Inside the Vatican.

Haffert then built a chapel in Fatima, Portugal, to house the icon. It remained in Portugal until "some time ago, Annan said, when Haffner took it from Portugal to Rome and "placed it with the Holy Father himself with the express purpose of John Paul II bringing the icon to Russia personally as soon as possible," Annan said.

It thus seems likely that plans to return the icon from the Vatican to Russia are being delicately negotiated.

As these negotiations proceed, plans for a papal visit to the Ukraine in June, 2001 are also at an advanced stage and could be finalized in the next few weeks, Vatican sources confirm.

Auxiliary Bishop Julian Gbur of Stryj, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and head of the papal visit committee, in an October 27 interview with Catholic News Service, said a "concrete plan" for the visit has been drawn up by Church representatives and submitted for state approval.

Vatican confirmation of the proposed five-day itinerary -- including the cities of Kiev and Lviv, and a rest in the Carpathian Mountains -- is expected by mid-November, Gbur said.

At the Vatican, sources say that, because of ecumenical sensitivities in the Ukraine, the Vatican is taking extra care before giving the Ukraine trip a green light. "The Pope's desire has always been to meet the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow (Alexei II) before visiting Ukraine," one source said. "But since that meeting has been put off for so long, one can ask whether it's right to penalize a people who have wanted a papal visit for many years."

The Ukraine trip is being studied at the "diplomatic" level, Vatican sources say, which means the Pope and his aides could still decide against the trip. But Ukrainian officials are pressing for the visit, they add. One Vatican source said the go-ahead may depend on whether a channel of communication can be opened with the Orthodox Church to discuss the ecumenical aspects of the papal visit.

The icon of Our Lady of Kazan may represent such a channel of communication ..

There seems little doubt that the Pope is anxious to visit the former Soviet Union, including Moscow, before the end of his pontificate.

It is also clear that John Paul would like to move closer to a reunion between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which have been divided since 1054.

Because of all that the icon of Our Lady of Kazan represents, the

restitution of the icon to the Russian people by the Polish Pope who fought so hard against the Communist atheist regime in the East would likely mark a dramatic step forward in the dialogue with the Russian Orthodox, who were also persecuted by the Communist regime; indeed, the handing over of the icon could be the solemn gesture of friendship and respect which could spark a long-awaited breakthrough in relations.

On at least four occasions in Russian history, as Inside the Vatican correspondent Marguerite Peeters notes, the icon of Our Lady of Kazan has been a rallying point and a miraculous protection for the Russians against various invaders: the Tartars, the Swedes, the Poles and the French.

In Russia's current state of internal turmoil, the return of the icon could spark a national renewal, a rededication of the nation and its people to God and to one another, Peeters notes.

Such a renewal would have much in common with something prophesied during an apparition of Mary in 1917 to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal: that "Russia will be converted."

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