On December 13, 2018, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian Church, filed suit against Princeton University in an action to recover four unique Byzantine-era holy manuscripts (the “Patriarchal Manuscripts”). The Holy Metropolis of Drama and the Monastery of Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa are additional parties to the suit. For centuries, the Patriarchal Manuscripts were housed in the library of the Monastery of Theotokos Eikosiphoinissa in northern Greece. During World War I, the Monastery suffered a terrible atrocity at the hands of an invading force of Bulgarian soldiers. On Great and Holy Tuesday, March 27, 1917, they stormed the Monastery, assaulted the resident monks, and absconded with the most valuable manuscripts of its library, including the four Patriarchal Manuscripts at issue in the lawsuit. The stolen Patriarchal Manuscripts were thereafter disseminated to dealers, book sellers and auction houses across Central Europe and four of them are now in Princeton’s collection. Princeton purchased one of the Patriarchal Manuscripts from a Frankfurt-based auction house in 1921. The other three were purchased in 1924 by a Princeton trustee and alumnus who ultimately donated them to Princeton in 1942.
It is a fundamental legal principle that one cannot acquire valid title to property from a thief. Therefore, as a result of the theft that took the Patriarchal Manuscripts from their rightful owner, Princeton never acquired good title or interest in the Patriarchal Manuscripts. When it was discovered that the Patriarchal Manuscripts were in Princeton’s possession, His All Holiness asked for their return, but Princeton failed to do so. We believe the right course of action is to return the stolen items to where they belong. Indeed, when the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois discovered that they possessed a different manuscript that was also part of the 1917 theft, it graciously and promptly returned the Manuscript. We pray that Princeton will do the same thing. The manuscripts are not merely relics of some forgotten history—they are a piece of the spiritual identity of 300 million Orthodox Christians. With this action, we hope to bring justice to a century-old wrong and restore an invaluable treasure to those of faith everywhere.