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Last czar, family gain sainthood

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 15, 2000


MOSCOW -- The Russian Orthodox Church on Monday announced the canonization of Russia's last czar, Nicholas II, and his immediate family for their "meekness" and "poise" when they were imprisoned and executed by the Bolsheviks 82 years ago.

The elevation of the last czar to sainthood has long been demanded by powerful right-wing factions in the church and had been the subject of considerable debate and controversy. The decision, which had been anticipated for several weeks, was made behind closed doors by Patriarch Alexy II and the church's 150 hierarchs, sitting as the Council of Bishops.

Reflecting the intense debate preceding the canonization, the bishops did not proclaim the Romanovs as "martyrs," or those who died specifically for their Christian convictions, but instead declared them "passion bearers," a category used to identify believers who died as victims of evil.

"In the last Russian Orthodox monarch and in the members of his family we see people who sincerely sought to live by the commandments of the Gospels," reads the council's decision in a statement distributed by the church press service.

Canonizing the royal family as passion bearers -- the lowest level of sainthood -- appeased supporters of the czar, especially nationalists who want a return to the monarchy, without endorsing the way he ruled, church officials had said earlier.

The bishops also canonized 860 others who were killed by the Bolsheviks, many of them priests and monks, as martyrs and "confessors of the faith."

"The council has sanctified as passion bearers among the throng of new martyrs and confessors of the faith, the Russian Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, Czarevitch Alexei, Princesses Olga, Tatyana, Maria and Anastasia," the church's press service reported.

The formal services will take place on Sunday at the Church of Christ the Savior, an imposing cathedral near the Kremlin that was rebuilt in recent years on the site of a church destroyed on Stalin's orders in 1931. The canonization of the last imperial family came two years after remains identified as those of Nicholas, his wife and three children, along with four servants who were killed with them, were buried in St. Petersburg. The remains were exhumed from a forest grave outside Yekaterinburg in 1991 and identified after DNA testing. The remains of two other children were never found.

The Russian church has not recognized these remains as belonging to the czar, and neither Patriarch Alexy nor any other bishop attended the simple interment.

The Romanovs were executed 16 months after Nicholas abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917, as revolutionary fervor swept Russia.

There was no immediate indication whether President Vladimir Putin would attend the formal canonization rites. Putin has not made his position on the canonization known, though there has been speculation in the Russian press that he supports the act for its powerful political symbolism. Putin's first months in office have been marked by efforts to restore central authority to Russia.

"Putin is a strong guy, and Nicholas II is a representative of a strong empire and this canonization would be a canonization of a strong empire, not of Nicholas II only," said Edvard Radzinsky, author of The Life and Death of Nicholas II.

Nicholas II was the fourth Russian czar to be canonized; the previous three ruled in the Middle Ages. Many believers already considered Nicholas II holy and have said an icon depicting his image shed miraculous tears in a Moscow church.

Metropolitan Juvenaly, the hierarch in charge of the commission on canonization, reported that the cases of each of the potential martyrs and confessors of the Soviet era were studied individually.

Among them were clergymen and church workers killed in 1937 and 1938, the worst years of persecution against the church. In 1937, 136,900 churchmen were arrested and 85,300 were executed by the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. Of the 28,300 arrested in 1938, 21,500 were shot to death.

Nicholas II and his family have, in fact, been canonized before, by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, in New York City, which canonized the Romanovs as martyrs. But the New York church does not acknowledge the Russian church and itself is not recognized by other Orthodox churches.

Potentially divisive debate over the imperial family was predicted before the bishops' council opened on Sunday. Two icons of the new saints were reportedly prepared, one with the czar and his family, and one without their images.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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