NEW YORK – Earlier this year, The National Herald reported on the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate calling for the return of 8 manuscripts stolen from the Panagia Eikosifoinissa Monastery in Northern Greece which were still held in collections in U.S. institutions, including Princeton University Library and Duke University, even after the December 3, 2016 return of the rare 9th century New Testament manuscript to the monastery by the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC).
According to a report in the New York Times, a federal lawsuit was filed in New Jersey on December 13 by plaintiffs including His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople against Princeton University for the return of the manuscripts.
When contacted for a comment about the manuscripts in September of this year, Princeton’s Acting University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told TNH, “The University is sensitive to the Patriarchate’s concerns and we are committed to ensuring that all of our manuscripts and other holdings have been properly acquired.”
“Among the evidence cited in the lawsuit is a volume, ‘Greek Manuscripts at Princeton, Sixth to Nineteenth Century: A Descriptive Catalogue,’ which was published in 2010 and identifies some manuscripts in the school’s collection as having been removed from the monastery in 1917 by Bulgarian authorities,” the Times reported.
George A. Tsougarakis, a lawyer for Hughes Hubbard & Reed in New York, which represents the patriarch, the monastery, and regional church officials in the case, told the Times that “this is Princeton’s book, issued by the Princeton press, about Princeton’s collection, written by Princeton employees. In our view that’s about as concrete an admission as you could get.”
In a statement on December 14, Princeton’s Acting University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss said, “Based on the information available to us, we have found no basis to conclude that the manuscripts in our possession were looted during World War I or otherwise improperly removed from the possession of the patriarchate,” the Times reported.
At the end of March 1917, during the First World War, the Bulgarian chieftain Panitsas with his men and Vladimir Sis, a self-proclaimed archaeologist, invaded the Monastery of Eikosifoinissa in the Drama area and after they destroyed the monastery and looted the library, including 430 valuable centuries-old manuscripts, fled the scene.
Fr. Alex Karloutsos told the Times that “before the manuscripts were stolen they had been in active use in the monastery, where monks would light candles and incense and read from them during meals and religious services,” adding that “they’re part of sacred history, and that’s our spiritual and cultural identity,” and noting that “the loss of the manuscripts and the efforts to recover them had been ‘very painful.'”
Fr. Karloutsos also points out that Duke University and the Morgan Library & Museum have also been contacted about manuscripts stolen in 1917.
The Times reported that “officials at Duke declined to comment.”
Noreen Khalid Ahmad, a spokeswoman for the Morgan Library & Museum, said via email, “Over the last several months, we have been engaged in thoughtful and respectful dialogue with the monastery regarding the manuscript and have proposed a solution to the patriarch’s counsel that we hope will resolve the issue,” the Times reported.