Ending years of impassioned discussions that have at timesthreatened to split the Russian Orthodox Church, officials saidthis week that the church will canonize Tsar Nicholas II andhis family in August.

The tsar and his family will be canonized at the Jubilee Councilof Bishops scheduled for the middle of August, said priest MaximMaximov, secretary of the Synod's Commission on Canonization,in a telephone interview.

"The final decision will be made by the members of the council,but the commission sees no obstacles to canonization," Maximov said.

The tsar, his wife Alexandra, their four daughters -- Olga, Tatiana,Marie and Anastasia -- and their son, Alexis, will be canonized alongwith hundreds of new martyrs and confessors of Russia -- clergymenand laymen who were killed or died in jail during the Sovietpersecution of religion -- in an unprecedented series of canonizationsthat will help to mark the celebration of 2,000 years since the birthof Christ.

The central event of the Jubilee Council of Bishops will be theconsecration of the massive Christ the Savior Cathedral on the Aug.19 Transfiguration Day celebration.

The tsar and his family have long been a thorny issue for the church,one that was given fresh intensity after the collapse of the SovietUnion brought religion back into the mainstream of society. While theRussian Orthodox Church has been unable to ignore popular venerationof the Romanovs, it also has been unwilling to give its blessing tothe political monarchist and straightforward anti-Semitic forceswithin the church that have championed the Romanovs' sainthood as"royal martyrs."

After five years of deliberations and delays, the church found somemiddle ground in February of 1997. At that time the Council ofBishops approved the report of the Commission on Canonization, headedby Metropolitan Yuvenaly. The report stated that, while Nicholas IIdoes not deserve sainthood for the way he lived and ruled Russia, thehumble Christian way in which the royal family faced imprisonment anddeath qualified them as strastoterptsy, or passion bearers.

That decision paved the way for the coming decision to canonizeNicholas II as a passion bearer.

Passion bearer is a special category of Orthodox sainthood, appliedto those who, strictly speaking, were not martyrs, because martyrdomrequires that the martyr made a choice between rejecting Christ anddying for him. Passion bearers are instead revered for the humble wayin which they met an imminent death. Saints Boris and Gleb, Russia'sfirst saints, were canonized as passion bearers in 1015 because theydid not fight their cousins who conspired to kill them over the Kievthrone.

The canonization report described at length how the royal familydiscouraged any possible plot to free them from captivity, howbitterly the tsar repented for his abdication, how they prayed forRussia and had no enmity toward their jailers.

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta-Religii newspaper thisweek, Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov, a member of the canonizationcommission, said that the issue of canonization has been practicallydecided.

Meanwhile, the claims put forward that the royal family were victimsof a "ritual murder" carried out by the Jews -- a widely held beliefamong anti-Semites within the church -- were rejected by thecommission.

Countering criticism that Nicholas was to blame for the revolutionand the ensuing persecution of Christians, Mitrofanov said hishagiography, drafted by the commission, stressed that "it is hisdeath of a passion bearer and not the state and church policy whichgives ground for raising the issue [of sainthood]."

"Saints are not sinless," Mitrofanov was quoted as saying. "And theemperor's policy had many faults."The veneration of Nicholas II has long been strongest among RussianEmigres. His canonization became a central policy issue for theRussian Orthodox Church Abroad -- a right-wing, staunchly anti-SovietEmigre church group that broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate in1927 after Metropolitan Sergei declared his loyalty to the Sovietgovernment. In 1981, at a church council in New York, it canonizedall the Romanovs as "royal martyrs," along with an assembly of NewMartyrs of Russia.When the Iron Curtain dissolved in the late 1980s, the Church Abroadmade the canonization one of its conditions for reunification withthe Moscow Patriarchate. Emigre publications started to circulate inRussia, attracting supporters in the nationalist wing of the Russianchurch. In 1992, the Russian Council of Bishops instructed theCommission on Canonization to start examining Nicholas II andhis family.
The Romanovs' story offers much for the mystical Russian mindset.Nicholas II was born on the day of Job -- the Old Testament righteousman who bore great suffering but never renounced God.Three centuries after the Romanov dynasty started in the IpatyevMonastery in Kostroma as Russia emerged from the "time of troubles,"Nicholas II's family was ruthlessly murdered in the basement of theIpatyev House in Yekaterinburg as Russia plunged into turmoil again.The romantic love story of Nicholas and Alexandra, both devoutOrthodox Christians, the agony of a family with a hemophiliac son andthe tragedy of the revolution all combined to turn the lives of thetsar and his family into hagiography.Excavations began this week in Yekaterinburg at the site of theIpatyev house, where the royal family was shot by the Bolsheviksin July 1918. The house was demolished in the 1970s when formerPresident Boris Yeltsin was the city's Communist Party boss.The goal of the excavations is to find the house's cellar, where theexecution took place. If it is found, the sanctuary of the futurechurch, which is planned to be built on the site, will be placedright above it, news agencies reported.

The remains of two people found during the excavations wereidentified as dating back to the 18th century.