Ending years of impassioned discussions that have at times threatened to split the Russian Orthodox Church, officials said this week that the church will canonize Tsar Nicholas II and his family in August.

The tsar and his family will be canonized at the Jubilee Council of Bishops scheduled for the middle of August, said priest Maxim Maximov, 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 along with hundreds of new martyrs and confessors of Russia -- clergymen and laymen who were killed or died in jail during the Soviet persecution of religion -- in an unprecedented series of canonizations that will help to mark the celebration of 2,000 years since the birth of Christ.

The central event of the Jubilee Council of Bishops will be the consecration 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 Soviet Union brought religion back into the mainstream of society. While the Russian Orthodox Church has been unable to ignore popular veneration of the Romanovs, it also has been unwilling to give its blessing to the political monarchist and straightforward anti-Semitic forces within the church that have championed the Romanovs' sainthood as "royal martyrs."

After five years of deliberations and delays, the church found some middle ground in February of 1997. At that time the Council of Bishops approved the report of the Commission on Canonization, headed by Metropolitan Yuvenaly. The report stated that, while Nicholas II does not deserve sainthood for the way he lived and ruled Russia, the humble Christian way in which the royal family faced imprisonment and death qualified them as strastoterptsy, or passion bearers.

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

Passion bearer is a special category of Orthodox sainthood, applied to those who, strictly speaking, were not martyrs, because martyrdom requires that the martyr made a choice between rejecting Christ and dying for him. Passion bearers are instead revered for the humble way in which they met an imminent death. Saints Boris and Gleb, Russia's first saints, were canonized as passion bearers in 1015 because they did not fight their cousins who conspired to kill them over the Kiev throne.

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

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta-Religii newspaper this week, Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov, a member of the canonization commission, said that the issue of canonization has been practically decided.

Meanwhile, the claims put forward that the royal family were victims of a "ritual murder" carried out by the Jews -- a widely held belief among anti-Semites within the church -- were rejected by the commission.

Countering criticism that Nicholas was to blame for the revolution and the ensuing persecution of Christians, Mitrofanov said his hagiography, drafted by the commission, stressed that "it is his death of a passion bearer and not the state and church policy which gives ground for raising the issue [of sainthood]."

"Saints are not sinless," Mitrofanov was quoted as saying. "And the emperor's policy had many faults." The veneration of Nicholas II has long been strongest among Russian Emigres. His canonization became a central policy issue for the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad -- a right-wing, staunchly anti-Soviet Emigre church group that broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1927 after Metropolitan Sergei declared his loyalty to the Soviet government. In 1981, at a church council in New York, it canonized all the Romanovs as "royal martyrs," along with an assembly of New Martyrs of Russia. When the Iron Curtain dissolved in the late 1980s, the Church Abroad made the canonization one of its conditions for reunification with the Moscow Patriarchate. Emigre publications started to circulate in Russia, attracting supporters in the nationalist wing of the Russian church. In 1992, the Russian Council of Bishops instructed the Commission on Canonization to start examining Nicholas II and
his family. The Romanovs' story offers much for the mystical Russian mindset. Nicholas II was born on the day of Job -- the Old Testament righteous man who bore great suffering but never renounced God. Three centuries after the Romanov dynasty started in the Ipatyev Monastery in Kostroma as Russia emerged from the "time of troubles," Nicholas II's family was ruthlessly murdered in the basement of the Ipatyev House in Yekaterinburg as Russia plunged into turmoil again. The romantic love story of Nicholas and Alexandra, both devout Orthodox Christians, the agony of a family with a hemophiliac son and the tragedy of the revolution all combined to turn the lives of the tsar and his family into hagiography. Excavations began this week in Yekaterinburg at the site of the Ipatyev house, where the royal family was shot by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. The house was demolished in the 1970s when former President Boris Yeltsin was the city's Communist Party boss. The goal of the excavations is to find the house's cellar, where the execution took place. If it is found, the sanctuary of the future church, which is planned to be built on the site, will be placed right above it, news agencies reported.

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

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