"A week ago, the Holy Father communicated to the patriarch of Moscow his desire to donate to the Russian Orthodox Church the sacred icon of the Virgin of Kazan," Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro Valls said in a surprise announcement Saturday.
"Since the Pope received this icon years ago, it has always been his profound desire to donate it so that it will return to the veneration of the Russian people," the director of the Vatican press office added.
"The propitious moment having arrived, the date of next August 28 has been agreed upon, feast of the Dormition of the Virgin, according to the Orthodox calendar, for the return of the sacred icon to take place," Navarro Valls said.
The Holy Father "hopes that this Roman pilgrimage of the Virgin of Kazan might contribute to the desired unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches," the spokesman added.
The image of Kazan is a small, 16th-century icon that appeared miraculously in Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, and that became famous for its miracles.
The icon disappeared in 1904, most likely the result of a robbery. During the Russian Revolution of 1917 a merchant sold it to a collector from Great Britain.
It reappeared in the United States in the 1960s, where it became part of an auction of international art. In this context, it was purchased by the Blue Army, a Catholic organization of devotion to the Virgin of Fatima, which gave it to the Pope in 1993.
John Paul II has kept the icon in the chapel of his apartment, waiting for the opportunity to meet with Patriarch Alexy II to return it. The patriarch considers the icon the property of the Russian Orthodox Church.
When receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin last November at the Vatican, John Paul II expressed the desire to return the icon to the Orthodox Church "as soon as possible."
With the new decision, John Paul II apparently has given up the idea of returning the icon personally to the Russian patriarch, as he tried to do last year in the context of a planned trip to Mongolia, with a possible stopover in Kazan.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, vice president of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate, said: "According to us, the questions of the Pope's visit to Russia and of the restitution of the icon to the Orthodox Church cannot be confused."