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An icon depicting a Russian saint blessing Joseph Stalin has stoked tensions in Georgia, the birthplace of the Soviet dictator who killed millions.

The controversy is further pitting right-wing fundamentalists and the country’s ruling Georgian Dream party against pro-European activists.

On 9 January blue paint was splattered on the glass-covered icon. The presence of the icon at the Holy Trinity (Sameba) Cathedral in the country’s capital of Tbilisi gained widespread attention after a dissident priest posted about it on Facebook on 6 January, Christmas Eve for Orthodox Christians in Georgia and Russia.

On Wednesday, protesters including priests from the far-right Alt Info movement, known for attacking gay pride parades, surrounded the home of Nata Peradze, an activist who said she threw the paint on the icon and is waging a social media campaign for its removal. Georgian police have launched a petty hooliganism investigation into the paint splattering.

Stalin was born Iosif Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia in 1879 and studied at an Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi, where he began his path to power. The seminary building was later turned into an art museum.

Matrona of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox saint depicted in the icon, was a blind woman, who was born, according to her hagiography, without eyes; she died in 1952. She developed a following in the 1990s that has grown into mass veneration of her relics at a Moscow convent. According to legend, Stalin met with the saint when Moscow was under threat from the Nazis during the Second World War.

Another icon depicting Matrona and Stalin caused a scandal when it was hung in a church in St Petersburg, Russia in 2008. It was subsequently removed.

The Georgian Orthodox Church issued multiple contradictory statements about the icon, which has now been cleared of the paint and moved to a more visible spot in the cathedral.

Leaders of a pro-Russian Georgian political party, Alliance of Patriots, said they donated the icon to the cathedral several months ago. The party’s secretary-general, Irma Inashvili, compared Stalin’s depiction in the icon to the Roman Emperor Diocletian in icons of Saint George slaying the dragon.

The ongoing furore has given rise to memes including one of John Travolta in his Pulp Fiction role instead of Stalin meeting Saint Matrona.

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