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Public excitement about Christian relic exposes social ills of Russian society – experts

November 25, 2011, 18:49 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, November 25 (Itar-Tass) —— The stay in Russia of a Christian relic, the belt of Virgin Mary brought from the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, has become an event, which has more than just a religious meaning. The tremendous public excitement about the relic displayed in the downtown’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral has come as a surprise not only to the clergy but to people of secular views as well. The situation around the church relic seems to mirror the problems of the present-day Russia. What makes people of the country, which used to profess atheist views for more than 70 years, line up in the cold for hours on end with just one aim – to kiss the reliquary to be miraculously cured of ills? Isn’t it because no one has any faith in Russia’s healthcare institutions any longer? Why are top-ranking officials and all kinds of VIPs allowed to use their privileges to skip the queue? Are they above the law in such matters as they are everywhere in life?

What is going on in Moscow today is a sign of social illness rather than a sign of spiritual resurgence, experts say.

The belt of Virgin Mary is a Christian relic believed to have belonged to the Mother of God. Holy books say the belt was divided into several fragments, the largest of which are now kept on Greece’s Mount Athos, in Georgia’s Zugdidi, in Cyprus, and in Italy.

The belt has been brought to Russia thanks to efforts of the Apostle Andrew the First Summoned Fund from the Vatopedi Orthodox monastery. It has already been shown in 14 Russian cities and was supposed to be displayed in Moscow, its last destination in Russia, from November 19 till 23. But unprecedented public interest has made the Greek organizers prolong its stay in Moscow till November 27.

The relic drew crowds of people all through its Russian tour. As of November 23, more than 2,290 million people came to venerate it.

It was a real trial for believers to stand in miles-long queues to touch the relic. Thus, in Samara some of the queuing people were on the brink of hysteria having spent many hours in the cold. More to it, it was reported that “a group of women with children stormed a police cordon to break through to reach the relic.” According to reports from a number of cities, first aid was often needed to people who felt sick while waiting for their turn to kiss the gloss-covered reliquary. People were injured in squash. Several persons died in queues.

In Moscow, the situation is still worse. Hundreds of believers had flocked around the Cathedral a day before the reliquary arrived in the capital city. By November 19, a line of more than 25,000 people stretched for five kilometers. The average waiting time reached 24 hours. The line grew three to four-fold on Thursday only. According to the city authorities, there were up to 100,000 believers in the queue on that day.

Over the five days the relic spent in Moscow, some 800 believers sought medical help. As many as 85 of them were hospitalized. But nothing seems to frighten people off, neither cold wind, no snow. Many are coming with children.

Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church say they have never thought the relic would attract so many people. The clergy say it is a miracle, experts however say it is a result of efficient publicizing. But both agree that it is the biggest religious event in Russia in the past one hundred years.

The city authorities are taking effort to calm down the hysteria. The Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has called on the believers to “be realistic about their physical abilities.” The city authorities are also worried about extra problems the event poses to the city’s transportation system. Russia’s chief sanitary doctor Gennady Onishchenko has also shared the worries. “Those who are not sure of his or her physical abilities, who have a sick heart or else, should better master the way mentally,” he was reported as saying.

To ease the situation the organizers had to take some measures as well. To have the queue move faster they first prohibited to kiss the reliquary, allowing only to touch it. Later they placed the reliquary onto an arch big enough for three people to pass under it simultaneously. Whereas in the previous days some 40 persons touched the relic in a minute, now up to 80 persons can do that.

On Thursday, for the first time since the belt was brought to Moscow, Russian clergymen deigned to remind that another relic of Virgin Mary that is just as precious – a fragment of Virgin Mary’s Robe – is permanently kept in Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

Moreover, it turned out that a fragment of this same belt of Virgin Mary has long been displayed in the Church of Ilia Obydenny located just a stone’s throw from the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, and no one is lining up to venerate the relic there.

Some even suggested that the Athos relic should be flown over Moscow in a helicopter.

In the mean time, a popular TV hostess Ksenia Sobchak wrote in her micro-blog about the so-called “VIP passes” that give their holders the privilege to enter Christ the Saviour Cathedral skipping the queue. As a proof, she posted a photo of such a pass. “The wife of a top-ranking official invited me today to see the belt of Virgin Mary by a VIP pass. I thought it was a cynical joke but it has turned out to be a cynical reality,” she wrote on Twitter. The photo followed a Church statement refuting rumours about “passes for VIP believers.”

Archpriest Mikhail (Ryazantsev), the ecclesiarch of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, confirmed to an Itar-Tass correspondent that people who arrive to the Cathedral in cars with car plates that might belong only to state officials are allowed to the relic skipping the line. “If these are state servants who are busy day and night thinking about the people’s well-being and who have no time to spend in the queue, they might be probably let in,” he said.

Experts however say it looks like the relic attracts people who, having forsaken Russia’s deteriorating health system, are looking for something else.

The overwhelming majority of pilgrims are women, many are relatively young – from 20 to 40 years of age, the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper cites an acclaimed economist and sociologist Vladislav Inozemtsev. The belt is believed to heal diseases and help women to conceive. In his words, the mere fact that women are lining up for such a miracle is a kind of diagnosis.

And what is the reaction of official medicine? According to Inozemtsev, medics should have made certain arrangements among the queuing people. Not depreciating or jeering at their beliefs, they should have taken advantage of the moment to circulate among thousands of waiting people information leaflets, to issue free referrals for tests, to poll people in order to expose problems of the healthcare sector in the towns they have come from. Officials from the ministry of social development, representatives from charity organizations and children’s homes might have taken a chance to persuade families, which may not have children, to adopt kids from children’s homes.

“But such problems seem to be of concern to no one. We are almost weeping to see people building up their faith but, as a matter of fact, what is going on might be interpreted as a sign of despair. What we see in Moscow today is a manifestation of social illness rather than a sign of spiritual revival,” he said.