updated 9/23/2006 11:37:03 PM ET 2006-09-24T03:37:03

Police have recovered a revered religious icon that was stolen from a monastery in southern Greece, after an intense five-week investigation, authorities said Saturday.

The 700-year-old icon of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, credited with having healing powers and performing miracles, was stolen Aug. 18 from a cliff-top convent near the town of Leonidio, some 185 miles southwest of Athens.

On Friday, police announced the arrest in Athens of a Romanian man, who confessed to the theft on Saturday morning. The 28-year-old suspect was arrested after he attempted, through a telephone call, to sell the 14th-century icon to a local bishop near Leonidio for $1.28 million.

Police said the man was found in possession of 239 votive offerings — some made of gold — left by worshippers on the icon, as well as photographs and videotapes of the 500-year-old convent believed to have been used in preparation for the theft.

He led police on Saturday morning to the church of Pantanassa in the village of Farakla in Lakonia, southern Greece, where he had hidden the icon within a stone wall enclosing the church, authorities said.

“He organized the theft himself and tried to sell the icon,” Greek police chief Anastasios Dimoschakis said. “This icon is a priceless work of religious art and invaluable not just to local residents but to all Christians ... it was a matter of honor for us to find the icon and the culprits.”

Every year, thousands of pilgrims visit the Byzantine-style icon, which measures 16-by-20 inches.

Dimoschakis said the icon will be returned to the monastery on Oct. 1.

After it was reported stolen, police launched a massive search, including setting up roadblocks in southern Greece and using helicopters to search remote areas.

Authorities said they believe the suspect entered the convent with a crowd of worshippers, hid in the complex and escaped with the icon at night using ropes to descend the cliff face.

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