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Officially Atheist Albania Offers to Return Saint’s Bones

March 6, 1985

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ The officially atheist government of Albania wants to send home the bones of a Greek saint martyred there more than 200 years ago. But the return of Agios Kosmas the Aetolian is being delayed by jurisdictional arguments within the Eastern Orthodox church.

While the debate continues, residents of Aetolia, a province in western Greece, are pressing for swift repatriation of their local saint, who also is considered a hero of the Greek struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkish rule.

″We’re getting a stream of letters and telegrams from individuals and regional organizations in Aetolia asking about the return of Agios Kosmas’ bones,″ a Foreign Ministry official said.

The remains were spotted by Panagiotis Christopoulos, a historian and Parliament librarian, during a research tour of neighboring Albania last September.

″I was shown the bones, preserved in a wooden box in the church of a ruined monastery near the village of Kolikantassi,″ Christopoulos said in an interview Wednesday.

He said it was not clear how the bones escaped destruction after Albania declared itself atheist in 1967. At that time churches were closed, priests defrocked and religious objects destroyed.

According to political fugitives from the self-isolated Stalinist state, mentioning the world ″God″ and making the sign of the cross are criminal offenses.

Enver Hoxha’s Albanian regime has begun reaching out cautiously for much- needed technical aid and industrial imports recently, however, and offered to return the bones as a goodwill gesture.

Christopoulos returned to Albania last November, accompanied by a professor of church history, to verify the bones as the genuine remains of Agios Kosmas, who was martyred in 1779.

″The historical record shows that Kosmas’ remains didn’t include the skull or the right lower armbone. Both were missing from the box - a key piece of evidence,″ he said.

Agios Kosmas, a wandering preacher, is credited with founding more than 200 schools in the Epirus region now divided between Greece and Albania, and teaching Orthodox Christianity to Greeks under Moslem Ottoman rule.

″He encouraged the growth of a Greek merchant class under the Ottomans and helped develop a spirit of nationalism,″ Christopoulos said.

He was executed on orders of Kurt Pasha, the ruler of Berat in southern Albania, for denouncing Sunday bazaars. Greek historians say he was the victim of a feud between local Ottoman rulers.

Carolos Papoulias of the Greek Foreign Ministry was told by Albanian officials during an official visit to Tirana last December that Agios Kosmas’ bones could be collected at any time.

″There is no problem as far as the two governments are concerned. It’s now up to the church,″ said a ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Church officials said Patriarch Dimitrios, head of the entire Eastern Orthodox church, and Archbishop Seraphim, who leads the church in Greece, have not decided which of them should take charge of the 68 surviving bones.

″It’s a problem. Kosmas is a Greek saint, but since the Orthodox church no longer exists in Albania, the patriarch may now be responsible for what happens to his remains,″ said Yiannis Thadzifotis, a church spokesman.

Some Orthodox churchmen argue that Agios Kosmas’ bones should go to his birthplace near the town of Agrinion. But many conservative clergymen say removing them from Albania would deprive ethnic Greeks there of a priceless relic of their Orthodox Christian heritage.

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