MOSCOW (AP) _ More than 80 years after Russia's last czar and his family were gunned down by a firing squad, the Russian Orthodox Church is preparing to make them saints, once again fueling passions over the monarch.

Aware that Nicholas II is denounced and detested as much as he is revered, the church will consider the Romanov family for the lowest level of sainthood during a Council of Bishops that starts Sunday. The seven members of the royal family will be among hundreds considered for sainthood for facing death at the hands of the Soviet regime with humility.

Canonization of the czar and his family is expected to win approval easily.

Supporters say Nicholas II was God's anointed ruler on Earth, unable to stop the communist revolution. Opponents of canonization say he was weak and haughty, more fond of lavish parties than running the country.

For many Orthodox believers, Nicholas is already a saint. Followers attribute miracles to the late czar: Icons of Nicholas are said to weep blood and myrrh, and miracles are reported on the anniversary of his abdication and at the place where he and his family were killed.

Some faithful claim to have been cured miraculously of medical ailments after praying to icons of Nicholas.

One man saw a crown in the clouds when he was on an airplane taking an icon of the czar on a tour of Russia, said Alexander Petrakov. Petrakov is treasurer of the Church of the Nine Martyrs, home of another Nicholas icon said to work miracles.

``Nicholas does not need this canonization,'' he said. ``As for any saint, the church will only be confirming what is already known.''

Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and their five children were killed along with four servants by a Bolshevik firing squad on July 17, 1918. The bodies were burned, doused with acid and thrown into a pit outside the city.

The remains were exhumed in 1991, after the Soviet collapse. After years of genetic tests and disputes about their authenticity, they were buried in 1998 in St. Petersburg. The remains of two of the children were never found.

The church has not recognized the bones as those of the family, and has been cautious about canonization. Leaders want to avoid comment on Nicholas himself, as some believers agree with the Soviet line _ that the czar and his family epitomized the excesses of the imperial era.

Canonizing the family as so-called ``passion bearers,'' the lowest rank of sainthood, appeases supporters of Nicholas II, especially nationalists who want a return to the monarchy, without endorsing the way he ruled, church officials said.

``It will be clearly explained that this is not about Nicholas being canonized as a monarch,'' said Father Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Orthodox Church's external relations department.