THESSALONIKI – Bulgaria has paved the way for the return of priceless religious relics which were removed from monasteries in Macedonia and Thrace during World War I. The first step toward meeting the longstanding demand of the Greek authorities came unexpectedly a few days ago when Bulgaria’s President Georgi Parvanov expressed his government’s intention of returning the relics to Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios. Parvanov’s initiative Parvanov raised the issue – without any new demand from the Greek side – during a private meeting he had with the Ecumenical Patriarch during the events held to celebrate the 90th birthday of Maximos, patriarch of Bulgaria. «The decision will contribute further to the friendship between the two nations and become an example to be followed,» said Vartholomaios, with feeling, as he thanked the president. The development came as a surprise both to Greek officials and to academics who had documented the relics and repeatedly requested their return. The relics include manuscripts, crosses, icons and vestments taken or stolen from the monasteries of Eikosifinissis and Timiou Stavrou in Drama, Dadias in Soufli, Panaghia Archangeliotissa and Panaghia Kalamous in Xanthi, and the cathedrals of Serres and Drama. At least 406 manuscripts have been scientifically identified and dated from the 11th to the 19th century – most are from the 13th and 14th centuries. They were known in Bulgaria as the «closed collection» because, as honorary Professor Vassilis Atsalos told Kathimerini, the collection remained closed from 1917, when they came into the possession of Bulgaria, until 1990. Of the total, 350 manuscripts come from the monasteries of Timiou Prodromou in Serres and Eikosifinissis in Pangaio, said Atsalos. «The question of their return had been raised both by the late Constantine Karamanlis before the collapse of the former regime in Bulgaria and by later governments.» At first, the Bulgarian authorities denied that the relics were in their possession, but the scientific identification and documentation that came after the efforts of many years caused them to change their tune. «The conspiracy of silence which surrounds the fate of the allegedly lost documents does not allow much room for research,» Atsalos commented in his first publication about the relics in 1990. He is a member of the committee set up to document and study the manuscripts. The relics, which are documents of great religious and archaeological significance, are being stored in the Central Ecclesiastical Historical Archaeological Museum of Sofia, where they have been on public display since 1990.