Relic leaves Russia after 'blessing three million'
A relic said to have belonged to the Virgin Mary left Russia Monday after a tour that saw it worshipped by three million people in a potent display of the power of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Belt of the Virgin Mary attracted a million people in Moscow alone, inspiring them to queue in a five-kilometre (three-mile) line for up to 26 hours in hope of touching the silver chest holding the relic and receiving a miracle.
"Nearly three million people came to the relic over this time, according to the most modest estimates," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill said after a brief service at Moscow's Vnukovo airport to see off the relic after its 40-day stay in Russia.
The relic -- which is believed to help women's fertility and cure illnesses -- visited ten cities before it arrived in the capital ten days ago on loan from Greece's Mount Athos monastery complex.
A motorcade carrying the relic circled Moscow along its outer ring highway on its way to the airport.
"Such a forceful movement of people towards the holy cannot be explained with any human arguments," the patriarch said.
"So many people were cured! I constantly hear about the wonderful miracles that occurred in our land at this time."
The gigantic line of pilgrims, which at its largest numbered about 82,000 people, caught even the Orthodox Church off-guard, as officials reminded believers that similar relics are on permanent display in Moscow's churches.
To make the line move faster, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which displayed the relic in Moscow, set it atop an arch which people could pass through without touching or kissing the silver chest.
Some reports last week alleged that religious authorities considered loading the relic into a helicopter for an airborne blessing of the entire capital city, although the flight never took place.
Archimandrite Ephraim, a monk who accompanied the relic from the Greek Vatopedi monastery, met with both Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend.
"We are receiving telephone calls, and people are saying there has been a miracle: 'I've been married 10 years and now I have a child.' There have been 20 cases of such a miracle already," he told Putin on Saturday.
Clerics said earlier they hoped the relic would help more Russian women become mothers as the Church is actively promoting motherhood to help the government curtail a steep population decline.
But not everyone shared the joy of having Moscow host the relic for so long, with many bloggers complaining of traffic jams and wondering how much public money went to feeding, policing, and keeping warm those in the queue.
A scandal also erupted when journalist and socialite Xenia Sobchak posted on Twitter a photograph of a 'VIP' invitation for visiting the relic.
"It's beyond good and evil!" she wrote of the exclusive ticket, which permitted the famous and important to get into the church through the back door without the long wait.
"They've given themselves a ticket to hell," one blogger 'farc1967' commented on on Gazeta.ru.
"What is the value of such prayer?" blogger 'komandorva' wrote on Live Journal. "Can you call a person religious if he passes children in line in his Mercedes to go ahead of them?"
When the relic arrived in Moscow, on November 19, tens of thousands of Russians queued in the cold outside the cathedral, but the doors stayed shut while President Dmitry Medvedev's wife Svetlana was given privileged access inside, an AFP photographer at the scene reported.
The cathedral, Russia's biggest and most important church, will now close for three days of cleaning, it said on its website.
Russia's Orthodox Church has enjoyed an incredible surge of influence and power in recent years as millions of Russians began to practise religion in the 1990s after decades of state-dictated atheism in the Soviet Union.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour became a symbol of this change when its replica was built in 1997 in the same spot where the original was blown up by Soviet authorities in 1931.
© 2011 AFP