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Faithful Pray for New Miracle To Aid Stolen 'Weeping' Icon

[The following appeared on page A1 of the Wednesday, December 25, 1991 issue of The New York Times.]

By Joseph P. Fried

Chris Karalekas, a 33-year-old shipping executive from Astoria, Queens, came because he believed that his prayers before the icon may well have helped his wife get through a difficult pregnancy.

Rosa Perales, a 53-year-old housewife, came from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn because the theft had moved her so.

"You can't believe how it made me cry," she said.

All day yesterday, hundreds of people streamed into St. Irene Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Astoria, where on Monday gun-wielding thieves made off with a gold- and-jewelry-adorned painting of St. Irene, the patron saint of peace and the sick. Last year, as the war in the Persian Gulf seemed imminent, the painting was reported to have been begun miraculously weeping and the icon became a magnet for thousands of faithful worshipers and curious tourists.

The police say they believe that the thieves were not as interested in the painting as they were in the valuables encrusting the portrait's frame - gold and silver pieces and diamonds, rings, necklaces and other jewelry donated by parishioners and other faithful over the nearly 20 years since the cathedral was built. The head of the church, Bishop Vikentios of Avlon, estimated the total value of the adornments at more than $800,000.


Kneeling Before Empty Throne

"But we don't care for the gold," he said as he stood beneath the elaborately carved wooden chandelier of the church, at 36-07 23d Avenue in Astoria, an area that is a center of Greek life in the city. "Our dream is to see the icon again."

It was a dream shared by those who flowed around him, many unable to hold back tears as they knelt before the eight-foot-high throne of hand-carved wood that had housed the icon but that now held only the plexiglass case in which the revered object had rested.

Late yesterday, detectives said they had no suspects. Calls to a special police telephone line, (718) 520-0444, by several people who suggested places where the thieves or the icon might be found turned out to be wrong. Church officials are offering a $50,000 reward for the icon's return.

"As of right now, there's nothing to report," said Detective Michael Rosenbluth of the 114th Precinct's robbery investigation unit.

As church bells somberly sounded throughout the day at St. Irene's - just as they would to mark a funeral, Bishop Vikentios said - the saddened visitors paid their respects, prayed for the icon's return and told why it meant so much to them.


Believes Icon Helped Wife

"My grandmother encouraged me to come here and pray four months ago," said Mr. Karalekas, whose wife had been having a difficult pregnancy after suffering a miscarriage last year. "I came here despite my reservations about the weeping icon, my skepticism that a wooden icon would actually be weeping."

After the difficulties with his wife's pregnancy abated, Mr. Karalekas said, he had a different view. Where before he saw "no possibility" that there had been tears on the portrait, "this born-and-bred cynical New Yorker now sees the possibility."

The portrait was painted on wood in 1919 by a monk from Mount Athos in Greece, and was said to have wept for about a month beginning Oct. 17, 1990. Skeptics attributed what seemed to be tears to such things as the effects of humidity on wood, but the faithful saw a miracle.

George Melis, a 63-year-old retiree from Astoria, who has often worshiped at St. Irene's said he had only the harshest feelings for those who stole the icon. As he paused amid the multicolored murals of saints adorning the side walls, he was in no forgiving mood.

"It's very bad," he said of the deed. "I believe God will take their lives away. That's what they deserve."

In sharp contrast, Bishop Vikentios aid: "We forgive these people. We love them."

Ms. Perales, who is a Roman Catholic, was visiting her daughter, who works in Astoria, when she felt the need to pay her respects at St. Irene's, where she had never been before. Entering the edifice of black-flecked gray marble with black trimming, she stared at the space where the icon had been and said with intensity: "They've got to bring it back. She belongs here."

Another Roman Catholic who visited St. Irene's yesterday, Khaled Hassan, a 26-year-old Astoria man who came from Jordan 10 years ago, termed the theft "outrageous."

"Whether you are a Catholic or Greek Orthodox, religious statues are very significant," he said.

Some at the church said they hoped to see the icon back before Christmas. Where many in the Greek Orthodox faith observe Christmas today, many others, including the St. Irene congregation, celebrate it Jan. 7 - providing time for the possibility of a happy and thankful holiday.

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