Date: Mon Jul 18 1994 00:06:00 To: All Subj: Weeping Icon SKEPTIC - Questions of Belief Ar

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Date: Mon Jul 18 1994 00:06:00 From: Tad Cook To: All Subj: Weeping Icon SKEPTIC ------------------------------- Questions of Belief Arise Once Again Over `Weeping Icon' Insurer, for One, Has No Faith In Large Claim for Jewels Removed From Picture By FRED R. BLEAKLEY Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL 7/15/94 NEW YORK - Church bells tolled in mourning for days over the Greek- American community in Astoria, Queens, after a band of armed thieves stole the jewel-encrusted "weeping icon" of St. Irene Chrysovalantou two years ago. Keep the gold and gems, Bishop Vikentios Malamatenios, dean of St. Irene's Church, implored the thieves in dozens of media interviews. Just return the icon. Five days later, the 6-by-8-inch wooden picture, stripped of its jewels, came back by registered mail. New York City Mayor David Dinkins joined the procession of joy in the streets of Astoria. But now it may be crying time again at St. irene's. The church has filed a $1.2 million insurance claim for 12,000 stolen jewels, which, it said, had been donated by parishioners. That claim is being challenged by Cigna Insurance Co., which told a New York state court in Queens last month that St. Irene's proof of loss is a "fake and a forgery". Controversial Sect The church contends it has suffered a huge loss, and says there has been a big misunderstanding about the proof it submitted to the insurance company. Controversy has swirled before around the icon and St. Irene's, a splinter sect of the Greek Orthodox Church that cleaves to a mystical Greek liturgy, sixth-century Byzantine dirges and the old Julian calendar. It isn't that anyone questions the devotion of Bishop Vikentios, 41, and Archbishop Paisios Loulourgas, 49, the two bearded prelates who founded the church in 1972. But some people here wonder whether they have applied an excess of zeal to the developmental side of their calling. The two men undoubtedly have a flair for it. Bishop Vikentios claims that in 22 years the domain of the archbishop has grown to 22 churches in North and South America, with membership totaling 150,000. During services at St. Irene's, the bishop's rich singing voice, amplified by loudspeaker, can be heard on 23rd Avenue. Until a few years ago, the archbishop had a Saturday-afternoon radio show. In 1988 the two men caused a stir by drawing thousands of worshipers to St. Irene's to welcome what many thought was a famous icon from Greece. The church bought a large-print ad in the local Greek press "Announcing the Miracle-Bearing Icon `Axion Esti' in New York." But in smaller print the ad said: "The icon, which millions of Greeks venerated in Salonica and Athens, starting March 6, will be in Astoria, in an accurate copy, which was painted at Mount Athos." When it arrived, the icon was held aloft by two priests sitting on the roof of a white stretch limousine. The weeping icon of St. Irene Chrysovalantou, an eighth-century noblewoman who chose a nunnery over marriage to a king, was painted by a Greek monk in 1919 and brought to Queens when the church was founded. It wasn't then famous for weeping, but miracles soon began to be attributed to it. Surrounding the icon now in an enclosure the size of a telephone booth are several pairs of crutches, a number of inhaler attachments used by former asthma sufferers, and dangling tamatas - silver, credit-card-sized emblems signifying bodily ailments for which a divine cure is sought. The weeping icon - St. Irene's itself, calls it that on postcards - arrived from Greece with 302 jewels already attached to it. Parishioners in the new world continued the tradition of donating jewels for the icon, either in thanks or in supplication. Praying for Peace The icon was on loan to a sister church in Chicago when, on Oct. 17, 1990, at the end of a prayer service calling for peace in the Persian Gulf, it was perceived by hundreds of worshipers to weep. The icon was returned to St. Irene's, where it continued to weep for several months, the bishop says. The faithful and the curious lined up around the block to get a look, and ugly rumors soon began to fly. Had the icon spent time in a refrigerator, causing condensation to occur? Had it been daubed with Mazola oil, as a weeping Virgin Mary statue in New Orleans allegedly once was? Bishop Vikentios denies that he or anyone else tampered with the icon, and volunteers that the New York Area Skeptics club tested it with "a laser light" as weeping occurred. What did they conclude? "They said it was a phenomenon", recalls the bishop. Not exactly, say members of the club, who examined the icon in early 1991. Steve Okulewicz, a Skeptic who is a corporate geologist, says the group found "smudges" radiating from the eyes that could have given the appearance of tears when flickering candles were held up to the icon in the darkened church. "We were all in agreement that the "tears" were somehow applied to the painting and that we were not witnessing any sort of `miracle,' he wrote in a report at the time. Hidden Space And the jewels? Bishop Vikentios says there were 12,000 of them, donated over the course of 20 years: wedding bands, gemstones, gold coins, watches and other items. Some were secured to the border around the icon, and many more filled a hidden space behind the frame, he says. All of them, the bishop says, were of high value. "We know that because several members of our church council work in jewelry stores," says the bishop. Donated items of lesser value, he says, were set aside and auctioned off on the feast of St. Irene each August. Here again, the Skeptics have doubts. Mr. Okulewicz says that at the time of his examination, less than a year before the theft, the icon had only about 100 pieces of jewelry surrounding it, none hidden behind the frame. Having worked previously in the mineral-sciences department of the American Museum of Natural History, Mr. Okulewicz says he recognized most of the so-called gems as glass or synthetic materials that "didn't have true fire or brilliance of real diamonds and minerals." Another Skeptic who examined the icon, Jeff Corey, a C.W. Post College professor of experimental psychology adds: "It looked tacky, lots of class rings, costume jewelry and stuff you get at Coney Island when you operate that little derrick kind of game. Taken at Gunpoint On December 23, 1991, the icon was taken from the church at gunpoint by four robbers. It was returned Dec. 28. Two days after that, the U.S. arm of the mainstream Greek Orthodox Church, which has been at odds with St. Irene's for years, issued a press release implying that the theft might have been an artful hoax. St. Irene's is suing for defamation. The bishop and archbishop continue to maintain that a cache of valuable jewels was present at the time of the theft. They submitted a translation of a detailed log of jewelry donations to Cigna, the insurance company, with a request for $1.2 million in reimbursement. When Cigna's claims adjuster first saw the actual ledger at St. Irene's a month after the theft, he was immediately suspicious: It smelled new and wasn't at all dog-eared for a supposedly 20-year-old book. He called in the New York law firm of Ira J. Greenhill to investigate the claim on Cigna s behalf. The Greenhill firm requested that a forensics expert be allowed to take samples of the ledger. St. Irene's balked, but after considerable negotiation it did allow photographs. That was enough. Through court data showing the merger date of the two publishing companies listed inside the ledger and a signed affidavit from the manufacturer, Cigna proved that the ledger couldn't have been manufactured before June 1990. It was all a big misunderstanding, Bishop Vikentios now says. He explains that in his desire to make things orderly for the insurance claim, he copied the year-by-year entries from separate scraps of paper into the ledger after the theft. The bishop "didn't need" the original evidence anymore, so he burned it. All of which he neglected to tell the archbishop, who was representing the church in its dealings with Cigna. That is why the archbishop believed that the ledger was old, and swore to it in legal hearings on the insurance claim, both men say. Cigna has filed a motion to have the insurance claim dismissed. The church's lawyers say they intend to pursue the claim in court. Says Bishop Vikentios, "`His eminence and myself have faith in God that everything concerning the robbery of the miraculous icon of St. Irene will end with God's will being done, for both the church and the Christian Orthodox religion.


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