Bulgaria and Macedonia both sent state and church delegations to Rome for the annual commemorations of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Comments by Macedonia's Archbishop Stefan, however, triggered a row with Greece.
By Goran Trajkov for Southeast European Times in Skopje – 28/05/08
Greece reacted to statements Archbishop Stefan made in Rome on Saturday (May 24th). [Getty Images]
Officials from two Balkan countries paid weekend visits to Rome for an annual celebration honouring Sts. Cyril and Methodius. The two brothers, who lived in the ninth century, created an early Slavic script that later became the basis for Cyrillic.
Marking the occasion, Pope Benedict XVI held private audiences Saturday (May 24th) with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin and Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The pontiff said the saints serve as examples for the modern world and urged the faithful towards greater appreciation of their religious heritage.
For Macedonia, the commemorations came during an election campaign and amid renewed international pressure to resolve the name dispute with Greece. During the visit, Gruevski reiterated his government's stance on the issue.
"Our strong determination is to become part of European integration as Macedonians and nothing other than that," he said. "We cannot deny our identity, culture and literacy because they are the most important preconditions for the future of the whole nation."
"There is no substitution for the identity and that is why we are going to become a part of EU as Macedonians and nothing but Macedonians," Gruevski added.
Comments by the head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, triggered an angry reaction in Athens.
"Saint Cyril, all you've done in your and our Thessaloniki is dead today," Archibishop Stefan said. "Your hometown has turned into ashes and dust, not a single letter of your and our alphabet has survived."
"In Thessaloniki, where people used to speak in your and our language, it is now prohibited for this language to be spoken and to exist anymore. Unfortunately, everything related to Macedonia is being prohibited and chased away. Our country's name, church, and all that's ours is being impugned," he said.
His words made headlines in Greece, where many saw them as implying a territorial claim. Voicing her country's concern, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis called on the Macedonian government to condemn the statements.
"What happened confirms the Greek arguments, position and policy, which emphasise the need for resolution of the name problem," Bakoyannis said, warning that the issue served as a tool for "irredentism".
In a statement Monday, however, the Macedonian Orthodox Church said Greece had taken the cleric's words out of context. "Neither in the past nor now could one deny that Thessaloniki is a birthplace of ours and the alphabet of all Slavic peoples rooted in the language of its citizens back then," it said. "It is exactly why Thessaloniki always has belonged -- in a spiritual and cultural sense -- to us and to all Slavic peoples."
Saints Cyril and Methodius were born in Thessaloniki in the 9th century. The two brothers became missionaries of Christianity and created the Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet used to transcribe the Old Church Slavonic language. They are venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as saints with the title of "Equals to the Apostles".
In Bulgaria, which began celebrating the heritage of Sts. Cyril and Methodius during the Ottoman yoke, May 24th is a public holiday, known as the Day of Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature.
The day of St. Cyril was also celebrated in Moscow and in Belgrade. A Macedonian delegation, led by Ambassador to the Russian Federation Zlatko Lecevski, laid flowers on the monument of Sts. Cyril and Methodius at Slav Square in Moscow.
In Belgrade, Macedonian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandar Vasilevski laid flowers at the monument to the brothers in Student's Park.
Svetla Dimitrova contributed to this report.