Leading clerics and monks in Greece are urging the state to take legal action against Bulgaria in a bid to win back hundreds of rare religious relics, including Byzantine manuscripts, that Greece alleges were stolen by Bulgarian guerrillas during World War I.
The move comes after the U.S.-based Museum of the Bible, which holds some of the world’s most revered collections of religious manuscripts, agreed last week to return a rare 10th century gospel book to the Monastery of Theotokos Eikosiphinisa in northern Greece.
“This return marks a glorious achievement,” said Bishop Pavlos of the northeastern Greek city of Drama, who oversees the monastery. “[But] more manuscripts and relics are out there, around the globe, and they need to be repatriated.”
“We plan to get tougher in our fight, potentially taking legal action against Bulgaria. But the bigger question is why isn’t the Greek state – the ultimate keeper of the country’s national treasures and identity – backing this repatriation campaign also.”
Greece says there has been no response from the Bulgarian government.
Successive Greek governments have long lobbied for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, billing their repatriation a top national priority and insisting the British Museum hand them back after a British aristocrat, Lord Elgin, hacked them off the ancient temple, selling them to the British Museum over 200 years ago.
“There is no difference to what happened in the case of Eikosiphinisa,” the bishop said.
Painstakingly written out in Greek and preserved for centuries at the monastery, also known as Kozintsa, the decorated manuscript was stolen in 1917 by Bulgarian separatists who looted some 430 sacred documents from the convent’s library and 470 religious relics.
They then sold them to bookshops and collectors across Europe. The documents and relics eventually found their way to art dealers, who allegedly auctioned them off to major institutions or private collectors in Europe and the U.S.
These include elite universities such as Princeton and Duke, and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
Legal action spearheaded by ecumenical Patriarch Batholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 200 million Christian Orthodox adherents, has already been waged in the United States.
But the front line of the battle, Bishop Pavlos said, should be Bulgaria, where the bulk of the booty remains in the hands of the state there.
“It is unthinkable that the Greek state has not even submitted a simple petition after so many years,” he says.
The Greek Culture Ministry did not respond to repeated requests by VOA for comment.
Claims for restitution target the Ivan Dujcev Center for Slavo-Byzantine Studies in Sofia, which holds around 300 of the looted manuscripts, despite the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly which required Bulgaria to return all cultural objects taken during the First World War.
In a statement, the Museum of the Bible in Washington said it acquired the 1,000-year-old gospel book from Christie’s auction house in 2011. But details of its provenance remain murky, allowing Patriarch Batholomew to take interest in its repatriation after the museum discovered the manuscript's looted origin.
The museum has since then acknowledged that pieces of its collection, originally owned by the Green family in Oklahoma City, founders of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, were looted and smuggled out of their country of origin – an admission that has sparked a thorough in-house investigation.
Similar moves led the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to hand back another priceless manuscript to the Eikosiphinisa monastery in 2016 – a landmark return that adds firepower to Greece’s campaign to win back the Parthenon Marbles.
Religion, Bishop Pavlos advises, should not become a factor in cultural restitution.
But even if it is, he quips, “Then those in the helm of power should not forget that the Parthenon was once a religious temple too.”