MOSCOW – A relic said to have belonged to the Virgin Mary left Russia Monday after a stay 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 visited 10 cities before it arrived in the capital 10 days ago.
As it departed Russia for its home on Greece’s Mount Athos, a motorcade carrying the relic circled Moscow along its outer ring highway.
“Such forceful pull 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 on our land at this time.”
The vast 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 on to a helicopter for an airborne blessing of the entire capital city, although such a flight never took place.
Archimandrite Ephraim, a monk who accompanied the relic from the Greek Vatopedi monastery, met with Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday saying “dozens of miracles have already been recorded”, the Russian Orthodox Church’s website said.
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 practice religion in the 1990s after decades of state-dictated atheism in the Soviet Union.