VATICAN CITY, AUG. 20, 2004 ( John Paul II will hand the icon of the Virgin of Kazan to Cardinal Walter Kasper next week, so that he can return it, days later, to the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow.

The return of the icon to the Moscow Patriarchate will take place Aug. 28, the day the Orthodox Church celebrates the Virgin Mary's dormition. The Pope will hand over the icon at a Vatican ceremony on Wednesday.

For its part, the Russian government sees in the return of the icon an opportunity to promote the national unity advocated by President Vladimir Putin, the Italian newspaper Avvenire explained.

On Aug. 13, Russian television broadcast Putin's visit to Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, who was in hospital for a medical checkup.

Viewers of the service's original audio heard that on "the 28th the ceremony will take place on the occasion of the return of the 'old' icon of the Mother of Kazan. The one that you, Mr. President, saw in Rome," during Putin's visit to the Pope last November.

"Yes, yes, I was able to see it," the Russian president replied.

The ceremony, which will be attended by Putin, will take place in the Church of the Dormition in the Kremlin, Avvenire reported. "These two facts imply that it is an important event," the newspaper said.

According to Russian experts quoted by Avvenire, the icon the Pope will return to the Moscow Patriarchate is not "just one more copy" of the most important image for Russian Orthodox, as some media reported in recent weeks.

In all probability, it is the most significant copy among the extant ones, after the destruction of the original by thieves in 1904, as stated in czarist police documents.

According to these sources, it is the copy that Czar Peter the Great could have ordered in the 18th century for the Cathedral of St. Petersburg, the new capital, dedicated to the Mother of Kazan. It is said that it was taken out of Russia in 1917, at the end of the October Revolution.