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Princeton University Denies Patriarchate’s Allegations, Sues for Legal Costs

Αssociated press

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, talks to pilgrims at the Patriarchal Church of St. George. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, FILE)

PRINCETON, NJ – Princeton University denies the Patriarchate's allegations that it has unlawful possession of stolen Byzantine manuscripts, as described in the lawsuit filed by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. At the same time, Princeton is suing for reimbursement of the costs incurred in the case.

Patriarch Bartholomew sued Princeton University on December 13, 2018, asking for the return of the sacred manuscripts which are over a thousand years old and have been for decades in the Princeton library collection. According to the Patriarch, the historic manuscripts were allegedly stolen from the Panagia Eikosifoinissa Monastery in Northern Greece in 1917, during a World War I attack by Bulgarians.

The Ivy League institution not only denies the illegal possession of the manuscripts, but also attacks the Patriarchate, saying that its request “is without knowledge or information necessary,” The Daily Princetonian, the university’s newspaper, reported.

According to Princeton's legal documents filed by lawyers for its Board of Trustees on February 22, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the attack on the Greek monastery in 1917 was committed by Bulgarian troops, or that the stolen items included the manuscripts in question.

In addition, the educational institution asks that the Patriarchate's request for a hearing be dismissed and for the Patriarchate to pay the costs “expended in defending this litigation,” The Princetonian reported, adding that the university also asks to be officially designated as the legitimate owner of the manuscripts.

Princeton University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss said in a previous statement, “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 Princetonian reported.

“We will continue to give prompt and meaningful consideration to any additional research and documentation provided, and we have encouraged those who believe they have any new information to contact us,” he said.

According to the legal documents, the university has evidence that two of the manuscripts in question “were gifted to St. Andrew of the Russians in 1877 – long before 1917,” The Princetonian reported.

As The National Herald has reported, the manuscripts requested by the claimants are the Memorandum to the St. Matthew Gospel by St. John Chrysostom written in 955 AD, the Heavenly Ladder of St. John of the Ladder (Climacus), written in 1081 in Constantinople by the scribe Joseph, as well as pages from the 9th century, which may have been part of the Memorandum to the St. Matthew Gospel, which may have been inserted at some point in the Heavenly Ladder.

It is also noted that Greek-American lawyer George Tsougarakis of the Hughes Hubbard & Reed Law Firm in New York represents the Patriarch Bartholomew, the Monastery, and the local Church officials. In a statement released by the firm earlier this year discussing the pro-bono case, he referred to evidence, including the 2010 volume, Greek Manuscripts at Princeton, Sixth to Nineteenth Century: A Descriptive Catalogue, which identifies some manuscripts in the school's collection as having been removed from the monastery by Bulgarian authorities.

“This is Princeton's book, issued by the Princeton press, about Princeton's collection, written by Princeton employees,” Tsougarakis told The New York Times. “In our view that's about as concrete an admission as you could get.”

In addition to Tsougarakis, Michael Salzman, Eric Blumenfeld, Pavlos Petrovas and Nick Velonis are also working on the case.