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Pope sending revered icon back to Russia next month in reconciliation gesture

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INTROD, Italy (AP) _ In a major gesture toward Russian Orthodox Christians, Pope John Paul II will return a revered icon that the Vatican has held for three decades, the Vatican said Saturday.

The announcement, made while John Paul is vacationing in this Alpine hamlet near France, came as a surprise, although the Vatican has been talking about a return since Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Vatican in November.

The icon of the Mother of God of Kazan usually hangs in John Paul's private chapel.

John Paul had been hoping to return it himself and become the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit Russia, but tense relations with the Orthodox have prevented such a trip.

Instead the icon will be taken to Russia on Aug. 28 by a Vatican delegation still to be named, said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Tensions between the Russian Orthodox Church, the dominant Christian faith in Russia, and Roman Catholic Church have deep historical roots. But they have increased markedly since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and communist restrictions on religion faded.

The Roman Catholic Church has sought to recover churches that belonged to it before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and has attracted new followers in Russia since 1991. Still, the Catholic flock in Russia remains tiny, about 600,000 people.

The Russian Orthodox Church has accused Catholics of poaching converts in Russia and other traditionally Orthodox lands in the former Soviet Union. It says it won't agree to a papal visit until the Catholics stop missionary activities and withdraw claims to disputed church property in western Ukraine.

The Vatican had looked into the possibility of a papal stop in the Russian city of Kazan during a proposed trip to Mongolia last August to return the icon. But the Mongolia trip was postponed and plans for the Kazan stopover were shelved.

The icon, which first appeared in Kazan in 1579, is revered by Russian believers for its purported ability to work miracles, including the rout of Polish invaders from Russia in the early 17th century. It hung in the Kazan Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square and the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg before being taken to the West after the 1917 revolution.

A Catholic group bought the icon in the 1970s and later presented it to the pope.
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