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Samuel bones in exchange for Greek church relics - the failure

16 November 2015 / 20:11:31  GRReporter
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The peak moment of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Sofia at the beginning of last week was President Rosen Plevneliev awarding him the highest state award, the order "Stara Planina". And during this ceremony Bartholomew surprised everyone. He asked President Plevneliev that Bulgaria should return the church values ​​and relics looted by the Bulgarian army from monasteries in northern Greece during World War I. "The final healing of this wound that is still open would be a historic moment in your presidential mandate, and would open a new golden page in the relations of Bulgaria with neighbouring Orthodox peoples and united Europe", said Bartholomew, making Bulgaria’s President feel awkward, as well as the other persons who attended the ceremony. The response came from the unpredictable Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, who for the first time officially stated that "In no case must Bulgaria return these relics."

Thus, another page was added to the saga about the return of the Byzantine icons, the unique ecclesiastical manuscripts, books and utensils kept in the Museum of Sofia. This saga has continued for decades. Konstantinos Karamanlis in his capacity as Prime Minister of Greece and his friend Todor Zhivkov started it and it continues to this day. Bulgarians want Greeks to return the bones of Tsar Samuel, which Professor Nikolaos Mutsopoulos at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki found in Prespa and Greeks want the stolen church treasures in exchange for them. Last year the two countries were about to come to a solution on the "hard bargaining" but "ghosts" of the past however prevented the exchange.


This happened in 2014, the year when Bulgaria commemorated the 1000 years since the death of Tsar Samuel, following the defeat of his troops in the village of Klyuch in 1014, and his burial in Prespa. There, in 1969, during excavations in the basilica of "St. Achilles" on the island of Mala Prespa, Nikolaos Mutsopoulos found bones wrapped in a cloth. The Greek archaeologist thought that they belonged to the great Bulgarian ruler and the Bulgarian specialists who examined the bones confirmed this fact.

On occasion of the important anniversary, the Bulgarian side wanted the cloth and the bones to arrive in Bulgaria, pressing the Greek side to grant them, but not providing reasonable assurance that they would return the church relics in exchange for them.

Athens did not object to this exchange but it did not approve the celebrations planned by the Bulgarian side in Prespa, including the erection of statues, marble crosses, patriarchal liturgy, in the presence of the political and state leadership of the country and did not allow the events to take place. The unspoken reason is that the Greek side does not want to turn Prespa into a place that is permanently linked to Bulgarian nationalism, thus challenging the Greek identity in the region. "The wheel of history is turning", a diplomat expressed similar fears before the newspaper Kathimerini. However, the door to negotiations was not closed, nor did Athens and Sofia intend to disrupt the excellent bilateral relations on the issue. The talks continued at a rapid pace as the Bulgarian side was rushing to achieve results before the celebrations and the negotiations reached Cardiff, Wales and Baku, Azerbaijan.

Talks with Antonis Samaras

Greek Prime Minister at the time Antonis Samaras and Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev talked in Cardiff, during a NATO summit, and the Greek Prime Minister stated before the Bulgarian President that the commemoration could not be held in Prespa. They continued the talks on Samaras’ plane while travelling to Baku, where they participated in an energy forum. The two statesmen agreed on Rosen Plevneliev bowing to the bones and the cloth in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, as a symbolic gesture and on the dialogue to continue at the level of delegations led by Ambassador of Bulgaria to Rome for the Bulgarian side and Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Culture Lina Mendoni for the Greek.

However, when Lina Mendoni went to Sofia in October 2014, she established during the meetings that there were strong centres opposed to the return of the relics, which did not seem to comply with the political will of the government, and at the highest level at that. Lina Mendoni even told her associates that a senior leader in the field of archaeology, who had a strong influence on the Bulgarian spiritual and political class, made very rude remarks regarding the diplomats involved in the negotiations and even the President himself, firmly stating, "you will take nothing."

It was clear that Bulgarian nationalism did not want to return the relics because this step would tear to pieces its own version, namely that these valuables ​​were not stolen, since the army had taken them from churches located on the Bulgarian territory, as eastern Macedonia and Thrace are considered such, and brought them to Sofia to save them.

At that time, in October 2014, talks were frozen, as Greece announced early elections and the new government did not show a particular interest in the matter. Only the church path has remained that, however, has its problems too. Boyko Borisov excludes the possibility of becoming a "second Petar Stoyanov" and the man who returned the valuables to the church ​​as Bulgaria’s former President did some time ago. To recall that in 1998 Petar Stoyanov returned to Zograf Monastery the original copy of "Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya" which state security agents had stolen in the 1980s.

Tags: Tsar SamuelClothChurch relicsExchangeBartholomew
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