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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church Finds Remains to Believe In

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the charred bones of Russia's last tsar and his family were being buried here last month, the Russian Orthodox Church snubbed the scientific evidence and staunchly refused to recognize that the remains were authentic.

But when priests saw a honey-like substance seeping from the skin of a mummified body, which for most of this century had been kept in an unmarked cupboard in a city anatomical museum, they did not hesitate to announce they had found the lost relics of the 16th century Saint Alexander of Svira.

Forensic scientists have not finished their tests on the remains and say it is too early to be able to identify them with any certainty. Undeterred, the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, declared the phenomenon a miracle and gave his recognition to the relics by praying over them Monday on a visit to St. Petersburg.

And for the past few weeks, thousands of Orthodox believers have been flocking to the small church in the suburbs of St. Petersburg where the relics are temporarily being kept to witness what they too believe to be a modern-day miracle.

After waiting outside the church in the rain Monday afternoon, a crowd of some 300 people, mostly women, were allowed in to the Church of Martyrs Faith, Hope and Love to reverently kiss the glass case covering the body. Several drops of a clear, syrupy liquid could be seen glistening between the body's toes.

"These are very difficult times," said Natalya Khmilyova, who works part-time at the church. "But all the same, God has not abandoned us and now the relics of St. Alexander of Svira have appeared. This is an amazing event that we have waited for a long time, so glory be to God!"

For those people who put reason before faith meanwhile, the unequivocal enthusiasm with which the church has embraced the mummified body has left a bad taste in their mouths.

"The church had doubts about the royal remains, when all of science had proven [their authenticity]," said Olga Bykhovskaya, deputy chief of St. Petersburg's Forensic Examination Service. "And here they have no doubts when science has not proved it."

The story of the disappearance of the remains and their subsequent discovery is worthy of a detective novel.

St. Alexander was born in 1448 in the countryside of north-western Russia. According to church tradition, he had a vision of the Holy Trinity in which he was instructed to build a monastery at a spot on the river Svira, which he was later to do. More than a century after his death, he was canonized and Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich ordered that his relics be exhumed and kept in the monastery.

However, in 1919, the relics were seized by the Bolsheviks as part of their campaign to suppress the church. For 79 years, nothing was known of them.

Then, in September of last year, the current abbot of the St. Alexander of Svira Monastery, Hegumen Lukian Kutsenko, received the go-ahead to start the search for the relics.

Mother Leonida Safonova, a nun with a Ph.D. in biology, joined in the search. After several months digging in the archives, she was certain the remains were in the Military Medical Academy's Anatomical Museum, she said in a telephone interview.

They were found there in December, not registered in the museum's inventory and sharing a wooden case with jars of preserved human organs.

Safonova said that tests conducted by Irina Benevolenskaya, an anthropologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, proved that the body belonged to a person of Vep origin, the same Finno-Ugric Tribe to which St. Alexander belonged.

In addition, tests showed a similarity between the face of the mummified body and the depictions of the saint in early icons. And most notably, the rare pose in which the body has been preserved, with its legs crossed, was the same as described in the church chronicles of 1641 when his remains were exhumed.

Further tests were to have been conducted by St. Petersburg's Forensic Examination Service. However, all doubt about the relics was cast away July 15, when Kutsenko was allowed to celebrate a prayer service over the remains in the service's X-ray laboratory.

Shortly after the service, Kutsenko said he detected a honey-like aroma around the body and saw a liquid exuding from the toes. The church maintains that this liquid is myrrh. "This was the main proof that sent everybody into astonishment," the priest said.

The Forensic Service's Bykhovskaya said more tests are needed, and the identity of the body will not be completely established before the fall.

The Church, though, says that further studies are unnecessary. Alexy II has already approved plans for the relics to be moved the 270 kilometers north to the Monastery of St. Alexander of Svira -- now all but in ruins -- next month.

After praying over the relics Monday, the Patriarch told local television that their discovery was a miracle and "a verification of our faith."

The Patriarch's itinerary in St. Petersburg conspicuously did not include the St. Peter and Paul Fortress, where the remains of Nicholas II and his family were buried last month. DNA testing appeared to prove the remains were those of the imperial family, but the church boycotted the funeral ceremony, saying they were not convinced.

Church spokesman Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said that there was "nothing surprising" in the patriarch's decision to stay away from the fortress that "naturally follows from the church's position regarding the authenticity of these remains."

But the church officials who tracked down what they believe to be the remains of St. Alexander of Svira are adamant that the church is not guilty of double standards: The fact that the remains started exuding liquid -- and reports that sick people have been cured after venerating the relics -- have put their identity beyond doubt for the church.

The appearance of various fragrant liquids on icons, statues or relics is a frequent occurrence among faiths around the world. Science has never completely explained the phenomenon, though theories have ranged from the condensation of tars to outright fakes.

But many religious people believe they are signs of God, who manifests his presence physically in order to strengthen people's lagging faith. This belief is rejected by Protestant faiths, and even the Catholic church is giving less credence to the phenomenon.

However, according to Kutsenko, Orthodoxy is a literal faith that puts great stock in physical phenomena. "Our religion is not so abstract, but more concrete, more down to earth," he said. "It pays attention to the holiness of flesh."

Mother Leonida, who tracked down the remains said: "No matter which technique we use, no matter at which scientific level we prove it, the saint himself has trumped all this when he started to exude the myrrh."