Ecumenical Patriarch’s visit to Bulgaria ends with question marks over cancelled events

Ecumenical Patriarch’s visit to Bulgaria ends with question marks over cancelled events

Sofia, November 10, 2015/Independent Balkan News Agency

By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of Τhe Sofia Globe

A visit by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to Bulgaria ended with eyebrows raised as a meeting with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov was cancelled – as was a joint news conference with Bulgarian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Neofit.

No reasons were given for either cancellation.

The visit to Bulgaria by Bartholomew, the “first among equals” of leaders of mainstream Orthodox Christian churches, from November 7 to 10, included a joint liturgy with Neofit and a ceremony at which head of state President Rossen Plevneliev conferred on Bartholomew the country’s highest state honour, the Stara Planina First Class.

But after Bartholomew publicly raised the issue of valuable church liturgical items missing from places of worship in northern Greece since the Balkan Wars, there was a last-minute announcement that the news conference with Neofit had been called off. A few hours later, the goverment media service said that Bartholomew and Borissov would not be meeting, as had been scheduled for November 10.

Bartholomew had said that he was using the good opportunity of his visit and the long-created “climate of mutual trust, friendship and sincerity” to raise the issue that the Ecumenical Patriarchate wants the return of sacred liturgical valuables seized during the “wars and confusions” of the Balkan Peninsula.

He referred specifically to objects removed from cloisters in bishoprics in northern Greece, in Serres, Xanthi and Drama. That these had been stolen and were not in liturgical use in their proper places was a sin before God and man, he said.

The joint care of the Bulgarian state and the church could lead to a final healing of a heavy issue that in spite of efforts to date, remained unvsolved. “It would become a historical moment in your presidency and would open a new golden page in the relations between Bulgaria and its neighbouring Orthodox peoples and united Europe,” Bartholomew said at the ceremony at which President Plevneliev conferred the state honour on him.

Bulgarian website Dveri, which specialises in news about the church, said that the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Metropolitan of Drama had repeatedly raised this issue in recent years, at meetings at all levels. The topic was often discussed in the Greek media, the website said.

In 1919, all the religious objects from these monasteries were classified in a special inventory that according to the Treaty of Neuilly, should be returned to the Kingdom of Greece. In 1925, part of the church plate was returned to the monastery of St John the Baptist.

However, many of the items have turned up in private collections in the United States and Western Europe. Two years ago, at least 10 precious medieval manuscripts from the Kosinitsa monastery were found in the library of Princeton University. In summer 2015, the director of the National History Museum in Sofia, Bozhidar Dimitrov, organised the showing in Sofia and several seaside towns of the greatest sacred objects from the Kosinitsa monastery, an icon of Mary with relics from four saints.

At the cancelled news conference, Goran Blagoev, presenter of a programme on religious issues on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television, had planned to present Bartholomew with a text entitled “Call from the Whole Bulgarian People”, signed by 256 academics, university professors, intellectuals and public figures, calling for the restoration of the Bulgarian Patriarchate “to its historical rightful fifth in diptihite Orthodox churches”.

The text insists that Bartholomew should address this issue during the planning for the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council.

At the ceremony at which Bartholomew received the state honour, President Plevneliev said that Bulgaria was an integral part of international efforts towards understanding and dialogue between religions.

The President’s office said that Bartholomew received the award for his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and his commitment to the contemporary problems of humanity.

“We appreciate the multilateral activity of His Holiness for the good of the Orthodox Church, the strengthening and enhancement of understanding and tolerance among all Christians, and between different world religions. His Holiness does not isolate the Orthodox faith from public affairs, but, on the contrary, tracks its social dimension, always seeking dialogue and agreement,” Plevneliev said.

(Photo of Bulgarian Orthodox Church Patriarch Neofit, President Rossen Plevneliev and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: