The first service to take place in 88 years at the Sumela Monastery in northeast Turkey was described yesterday as a «historic and important» event by Premier George Papandreou, who watched Patriarch Vartholomaios preach to some 1,500 pilgrims, many from Greece and Russia. «After 88 years, the tears of the Virgin Mary have stopped flowing,» said Vartholomaios, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, at the 4th-century monastery, built into a sheer cliff in the Trabzon area of Turkey, where tens of thousands of Black Sea, or Pontian, Greeks once lived. The last service held at the monastery was in 1922, before the last of the Greeks fled the region following the First World War and the conflict between Greece and Turkey. Greece estimates that 350,000 Pontians were killed when they were forced out by the Turks, in what Athens describes as a genocide. For the first time since then, the Turkish government, which is trying to allow greater religious and ethnic freedom in the country as it attempts to gain entry to the European Union, gave official permission for Vartholomaios to hold a service at Sumela to mark the ascension of Jesus's mother, Mary, to heaven. The Patriarch said the event had great symbolism. «This monastery is the bequest of a civilization that had a culture of living together,» he said. «Let us ensure this bequest survives so the pain does not reoccur.» The Greeks admitted to the service seemed greatly moved. «For us, the Virgin of Sumela is more important than our mother,» said Charalambos Zigas, 51. «Being apart from this place feels like being Odysseus: always searching for your home,» Evropi Papadopoulou, 45, told Reuters.