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[The following appeared on page A1 of the Tuesday, December 24, 1991 issue of The New York Times.]
Queen's Church Robbed of
By Donatella Lorch
Armed robbers yesterday burst into a neighborhood church in Queens that has become a center of pilgrimage and stole an icon that has drawn thousands of faithful worshipers and curious tourists.
The icon, a gold-and-jewelry encrusted painting of St. Irene, the patron saint of peace and of the sick for whom the church was built, was worth more than $500,000, church officials said. But what made it most valuable in the eyes of the worshipers was that last year, on the eve of the Persian Gulf war, the painting was reported to have miraculously begun weeping.
"We don't care for the gold, we don't care for the diamonds," said Bishop Vikentios of Avalon, the head of the St. Irene of Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Church. "We only want the icon back. It is a symbol of peace. It is a symbol for the whole world. Irene means peace."
A woman and three men, one wearing a ski mask, broke into the church at 36-07 23d Avenue in Astoria at 1 P.M. and snatched the portrait of St. Irene from a wood-carved throne in front of the altar, said Chief Ray Abruzzi, commanding officer of Queens detectives. He said the robbers, three of whom carried handguns, apparently had come to the church specifically to steal the painting.
As news of the theft spread through the neighborhood of immigrants yesterday evening, men and women gathered outside the church, weeping to themselves, hugging each other and praying aloud in Greek.
A Tear in Chicago
Painted on wood in 1919 by a monk from Mount Athos in Greece, the portrait has been at St. Irene's since the church was founded in 1972. The painting was enclosed in a glass frame that was bedecked with precious stones and gold bracelets given over the years by parishioners.
But it took on new spiritual value a little over a year ago when, on Oct. 17, congregants of St. Athanasios and John the Baptist Church in Chicago, where the icon was on loan, reported that the portrait had shed tears. During the next five days, thousands of people flocked to the church, and when the painting was returned to St. Irene's on Oct. 23, the crowds began there as well. Since then, more than 1,000 worshipers gather at St. Irene's every week to pray.
The police said the robbery took less than 15 minutes. As the robbers entered the church, they threatened a priest and a woman parishioner, ordering the two into the altar area and forcing them to their knees. Then they tried to break into the plexiglass case that held the painting, but were unable to do more than crack the glass.
At that point, the police said, another priest, the Rev. Nictarios, entered the church and was grabbed by the robbers.
"They said, 'give me the key,'" Father Nictarios said. "But I had no key, so they tried to break the case with their guns."
Unable to do more than crack the glass, the robbers broke the lock of the case and snatched the 20-by-30 inch portrait, stuffed it in a white silk swath from the altar and fled by car, Bishop Vikentios said. The police said they all appeared to be in their 20's. They all wore blue jeans and fled south on 35th Street in a blue compact car.
Message of Peace
Because the church has so many worshipers, the doors are ordinarily open from 6 A.M. to 9 P.M. It has a complete alarm system, Bishop Vikentios said. A week ago, he said, the alarm wires were apparently cut and a dozen or so parishioners camped inside the church overnight to guard the icon until the alarm could be repaired.
When parishioners first reported the icon's tears in 1990, church leaders said it was to send a message of world peace at a time when the world was about to go to war.
The painting reportedly wept from Oct. 17 for about a month. During that time, Archbishop Paisios, head of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis Genuine Orthodox Christians of North and South America, sent telegrams to President Bush, Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the United Nations Secretary General, asking them to avoid war at all cost.
'It Is Like My Mother'
Bishop Vikentios had said the painting cried once before, in August 1990, but shed only two tears that soon dried up. He said then that he knew of at least one healing attributed to the painting, in which a 7-year-old Piscataway girl's roving eye was healed. Yesterday, Bishop Vikentios said the theft, too, was a message, this time of impending disaster.
Among the grieving parishioners at the church yesterday, few could find words to express their anguish. "It is like my mother to me," Bishop Vikentios said of the icon. "She is the mother of our community, the mother of the world."
Mourners gathered last evening, oblivious to the cold drizzle. The older women, in dark clothes and head scarves, mumbled prayers. Several managed to pass through the police tape and enter the church. They stood in a line and cried in front of the empty altar. Outside, a lone woman paced in the cold, frenetically fingering her rosary beads, tears streaming down her face as she prayed aloud in Greek.
The Bishop is offering a $50,000 reward for the return of the icon. The police have established a special 24-hour telephone line, (718) 520-0444, for receiving information on the robbery.
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