Freezing weather and long hours of waiting did not stop hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christian pilgrims from flocking to see the Cincture of the Virgin Mary as the holy relic makes a once-in-a-lifetime appearance in Moscow.
Twenty six hours – this was the average waiting time for pilgrims intent on seeing the belt. On Thursday, the queue stretched for several kilometers from the cathedral along the embankment of the Moscow River and all the way to Luzhniki Stadium, three metro stations away. One woman said she left her home at around 6 a.m. to go see the relic and came back at around the same time the next day.
The cincture is on display 24/7 and scores of police have been dispatched to keep order. The city has also allocated 202 buses, 25 diesel power generators and over 100 hot food and tea distribution points to help keep the pilgrims warm and fed. On one night, temperatures dropped to -10 degrees Celsius, but even that didn’t stop the crowds from flocking to the cathedral: “I've been waiting in the queue since early in the morning. And I'm willing to stay here even longer – the whole night even. It’s a pleasure!” said one woman.
Over 20 teams of doctors, including psychologists, are also on duty since a large number of the pilgrims are elderly. For many, this is a real endurance test, which, unfortunately, not all will see through – 1,043 people have asked for medical assistance so far, and 87 have been taken to hospital.
But apparently not everyone has to stand in line. On Thursday, news emerged that a number of VIP vehicles had entered and left the grounds of the cathedral. They reportedly had special license plates usually used by members of parliament, the government and security services.
This is how Sitora, a pilgrim from the Kaluga region, described the situation:
“There is a separate line for those with special invitations right at the main entrance to the cathedral, where ordinary people exit. We stood for 12 and a half hours in line and at night we were told it was going to be more difficult to enter in the morning because of these people with invitations.”
The Russian Orthodox Church has denied the reports, saying that special invitations were distributed in advance among other churches and cathedrals in the Moscow area. One church official also suggested that “people may be confusing for VIPs the staff of the cathedral, which has several hundred people providing security and cleaning the interior.”
When the relic was initially put on display, the pilgrims were able to touch it. Five days later, the organizers decided to raise it above the ground and put it onto an arch so that people could walk under it, speeding up the process. It is thought each visitor now spends only about one second near the holy belt.
On Friday, after the new scheme was put into action, the queue reduced to 700-1,000 people. And so did the waiting time – to around 30 minutes. Another factor which may have eased the situation was the decision to extend the holy relic’s stay in Moscow. But the organizers say they expect the flow of pilgrims to increase again over the weekend.
The holy belt is believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary herself. Usually it is kept at a monastery on Mount Athos. Since women are not admitted to the autonomous monastic territory, they never have a chance to see the relic, except when it is brought outside.
This is the first time it has left its sanctuary in two centuries, which may explain the mass pilgrimage the belt has provoked in Russia. Ironically, a tiny piece of the same holy belt is on permanent display at another Moscow cathedral, just a few hundred meters away from Christ the Savior.