Russian patriarch returns icon long held by pope to Kazan, criticizes Catholic church

Moscow, Russia - The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated the return of a religious icon from the Vatican Thursday, but reiterated criticism of the Roman Catholic church.

With thousands of faithful massed in Kazan, Patriarch Alexy II led a colorful ceremony and turned over to the city's church authorities the Mother of God of Kazan icon – which was returned to Russia last summer in a goodwill gesture.

Pope John Paul II had hoped to carry the icon to Russia himself and accomplish his dream of traveling to the mostly Orthodox Christian country, but Alexy said a papal visit could not be based on returning the icon – a copy of the original 16th century work.

Alexy reiterated Thursday that no pope can visit Russia until ties improve, and again accused Roman Catholics of proselytizing in traditionally Orthodox Christian lands, Russian news agencies reported.

"I have not ruled out and do not rule out a visit by the pope to Russia, but under certain conditions," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Alexy as saying at a news conference. "Today we are witnessing broad proselytizing by the Roman Catholic Church on the territory of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan."

The Our Lady of Kazan icon is said to have healed the sick and help Russian armies repulse invaders, and thousands gathered to see the copy that Alexy held high. It is to be kept in a monastery in the Volga River city.

"It's just a joy to see it, a great joy," onlooker Tatyana Kuvshinova, tears in her eyes, told Russia's Channel One television.

The tone of the ceremonies seemed to contrast with Alexy's words last year when he referred to the icon as "one of many copies" and said its return could under no circumstances serve as the reason for a visit by John Paul.

John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has made improving relations among Christians and healing the 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox a "fundamental" priority of his papacy.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which claims two-thirds of the country's population of 143 million as well as millions in neighboring countries as followers, is the largest in the Orthodox world.