Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew ruffled the feathers of his Bulgarian hosts during an official visit to the Balkan nation when he finished a speech, calling for the return of Byzantine-era religious relics that were removed by Bulgarian occupation troops from churches and monasteries in northern Greece during the Balkan Wars.
The controversial remarks, made during Bartholomew’s acceptance of an award called the Stara Planina, the highest award offered by the country’s government, caught organizers by surprise.
“We were surprised by the demands of the Ecumenical Patriarch,” said Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, who presented the award, according to an interview on Bulgarian radio.
The controversy prompted Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov to cancel his meeting with Bartholomew, while Socialist Party leader Mihail Mikov told Bulgaria’s Focus News Agency that the Patriarch’s behavior had been “insulting to Bulgarian citizens and Christians.”
Bartholomew referred specifically to objects removed from Metropolises in Serres, Xanthi and Drama, noting that the items were stolen and were not in liturgical use in their proper places, which constituted “a sin before God and man.”
Among the disputed items are 11th century manuscripts and other items that were taken by Bulgarian troops during various wars with Greece in the early 20th century.