, MOSCOW, Nov 24 – Braving sub-zero temperatures and a line stretching several kilometres, almost half a million Russians have queued this week to venerate a relic of the Virgin Mary brought to Moscow from Greece.
The Moscow authorities said 400,000 people had queued outside Moscow’s vast Cathedral of Christ the Saviour since the The Belt of the Virgin Mary relic arrived on Saturday. Around 82,000 were queuing on Thursday alone.
In an extraordinary display of the strength of Orthodox Christianity in post-Soviet Russia, the faithful have stood in a queue stretching five kilometres (three miles).
The Belt of the Virgin Mary is believed to help women’s fertility and cure illnesses. Worshippers have endure up to 26 hours in line in order to go inside the church to touch it.
“I am 74, and I have suffered a heart attack. I am handicapped in my arm and leg,” said one man, identifying himself as Vladimir, after exiting the imposing white cathedral and leaning on his wife’s supporting arm.
“Maybe it will help?” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
The head of the Moscow city centre prefecture Pavel Bolshunov told Russian news agencies that as of Thursday morning over 407,000 people had visited the relic since the weekend and another 82,000 were currently waiting.
Faced with the incredible queues, the Russian Orthodox Church extended the relic’s stay in Moscow by three days to Sunday.
An intercom announcement on the Moscow metro at the stop nearest to the Cathedral warned people arriving by the subway that the line stretched along the Moscow river for nearly five kilometres and its end was in a distant neighbourhood four metro stops away.
Struggling to contain the throngs of Orthodox believers, the city erected a maze of metal holding barriers, rerouted traffic on some of the streets, and brought in 1,500 police officers to ensure order.
A woman pleaded with one officer on Thursday to be allowed to the top of the queue. “But I took the day off already!” she said, wringing her hands. Parents ushered boys and girls through the barricades in a separate queue for children and the handicapped.
The Belt of the Virgin Mary is kept permanently in Vatopedi monastery on the Greek mount Athos and this is its first ever appearance in Russia.