Greek Monastery Seeks Return of Stolen Religious Objects from Bulgaria

Leading clerics and monks in Greece are urging the state to take legal action against Bulgaria in a bid to win back hundreds of rare religious relics, including Byzantine manuscripts, that Greece alleges were stolen by Bulgarian guerrillas during World War I.The move comes after the U.S.-based Museum of the Bible, which holds some of the world’s most revered collections of religious manuscripts, agreed last week to return a rare 10th century gospel book to the Monastery of Theotokos Eikosiphinisa in northern Greece.“This return marks a glorious achievement,” said Bishop Pavlos of the northeastern Greek city of Drama, who oversees the monastery. “[But] more manuscripts and relics are out there, around the globe, and they need to be repatriated.”“We plan to get tougher in our fight, potentially taking legal action against Bulgaria. But the bigger question is why isn’t the Greek state – the ultimate keeper of the country’s national treasures and identity – backing this repatriation campaign also.”Greece says there has been no response from the Bulgarian government.Successive Greek governments have long lobbied for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, billing their repatriation a top national priority and insisting the British Museum hand them back after a British aristocrat, Lord Elgin, hacked them off the ancient temple, selling them to the British Museum over 200 years ago.FILE – A woman looks at the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, on show at the British Museum in London, Oct. 16, 2014.“There is no difference to what happened in the case of Eikosiphinisa,” the bishop said.Painstakingly written out in Greek and preserved for centuries at the monastery, also known as Kozintsa, the decorated manuscript was stolen in 1917 by Bulgarian separatists who looted some 430 sacred documents from the convent’s library and 470 religious relics.They then sold them to bookshops and collectors across Europe. The documents and relics eventually found their way to art dealers, who allegedly auctioned them off to major institutions or private collectors in Europe and the U.S.These include elite universities such as Princeton and Duke, and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.Legal action spearheaded by ecumenical Patriarch Batholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 200 million Christian Orthodox adherents, has already been waged in the United States.But the front line of the battle, Bishop Pavlos said, should be Bulgaria, where the bulk of the booty remains in the hands of the state there.“It is unthinkable that the Greek state has not even submitted a simple petition after so many years,” he says.The Greek Culture Ministry did not respond to repeated requests by VOA for comment.Claims for restitution target the Ivan Dujcev Center for Slavo-Byzantine Studies in Sofia, which holds around 300 of the looted manuscripts, despite the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly which required Bulgaria to return all cultural objects taken during the First World War.In a statement, the Museum of the Bible in Washington said it acquired the 1,000-year-old gospel book from Christie’s auction house in 2011. But details of its provenance remain murky, allowing Patriarch Batholomew to weigh in and insist on its return.FILE – A visitor looks at various Bibles during a preview at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., Nov. 14, 2017.The museum has since then acknowledged that pieces of its collection, originally owned by the Green family in Oklahoma City, founders of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, were looted and smuggled out of their country of origin – an admission that has sparked a thorough in-house investigation.Similar moves led the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to hand back another priceless manuscript to the Eikosiphinisa monastery in 2016 – a landmark return that adds firepower to Greece’s campaign to win back the Parthenon Marbles.Religion, Bishop Pavlos advises, should not become a factor in cultural restitution.But even if it is, he quips, “Then those in the helm of power should not forget that the Parthenon was once a religious temple too.” 

France Faces Public Resistance to COVID Vaccine

As French authorities prepare to roll out their COVID immunization strategy this week, they face skepticism in a country where surveys show many people do not trust the vaccine.France was among the nations of Europe taking the heaviest hit from the COVID-19 outbreak as more than 50, 000 people died of the virus.Like the rest of the world, hopes are high that vaccines will defeat the virus and enable people to go back to a normal life. The French immunization campaign is scheduled to start by the end of December with the elderly, people living in nursing homes and medical personnel slated to receive the first doses.In an address to the nation, French President Emmanuel Macron said a scientific committee would supervise the immunization campaign and a citizen group would be created to make sure the population is part of the process. Immunization against COVID-19 must be clear and transparent and information must be shared  on what is known and unknown, insists Macron, who stressed that immunization will not be mandatory in France.The government is worried that millions of French people will refuse coronavirus vaccine shots due as skepticism grows in the country. Fifty-nine percent of French people surveyed say they would not get vaccinated, according to an IFO poll published on Sunday.Prime Minister Jean Castex recently said his fear is that not enough French people will get vaccinated.Jean Paul Stahl, a French doctor of infectious diseases, said the numbers concern him.The professor explains there is a common fear of side effects for these vaccine.He said there is also skepticism as people see this vaccine as a tool used by the government. Stahl said that nowadays in our societies, more and more people do not trust any authority: political, scientific, and others.France has budgeted more than $1.75 billion to buy vaccines next year. 

UK Inquiry Looks into Role of Air Pollution in Death of Girl

A public inquiry opens Monday in London to determine the role played by air pollution in the death of a girl living near a busy London street, a case that could set a precedent. Then 9 years old, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died February 15, 2013, of a serious asthma attack after nearly three years of repeated attacks and more than 30 hospitalizations related to the disease.  An initial investigation, in 2014, determined that she died of acute respiratory failure caused by severe asthma. But those findings were overturned in 2019 and a new investigation was ordered because of new evidence regarding air pollution risks, highlighted in a report in 2018.  This second investigation, which begins Monday and will last two weeks, will examine the levels of pollution to which Ella had been exposed and determine whether they caused her death. If the coroner, charged with identifying the reason for death, concludes that air pollution directly caused Ella’s death, that would set a precedent. The girl is believed to be the first person in the United Kingdom to have air pollution as the cause of death. ‘Striking link’Ella lived less than 30 meters from the South Circular, a busy and regularly congested route in South London.  In 2018, Professor Stephen Holgate, a British air pollution expert, noted a “striking link” between Ella’s emergency hospitalizations and the recorded peaks of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and airborne particles, the most harmful pollutants. The investigation will examine possible failures by the authorities to take measures to reduce pollution and inform the public about the health risks. Officials from the British Ministries of Transport, Environment and Health will be heard, as well as Holgate. Ella’s mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, will testify during the second week of the investigation. “It has been almost eight years since Ella passed away and it has been a long and difficult struggle to get this investigated, with obstacles in the way. I want justice for Ella and the true cause of her death written on her death certificate,” Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said in a statement, before the opening of the second investigation. “She was the life and soul of our home, always playing music, dancing with my other daughter, Sophia. She had a lot of influence on her younger siblings, encouraging them to succeed, their doing sports,” she said. According to figures from the city of London, 99% of the city exceeds the limits recommended by the WHO in terms of air pollution.  Last month, the executive director of the Clean Air Fund, Jane Burston, noted “that children in London age 4 were .2% more likely to be hospitalized with asthma on days when nitrogen dioxide pollution is high.” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said last month, citing supporting figures, that air quality had improved since 2016. He highlighted the measures put in place since his election, including enforcement last year of an “ultra-low emission zone” (ULEZ) that forces the drivers of the most polluting vehicles to pay a daily tax on entry. 

French Police Charged in Beating, Racial Abuse of Black Man

Four French police officers have been charged in connection to the beating and racial abuse of a black music producer, a judicial source said Monday, days after the incident in Paris that intensified controversy over a proposed security law. The beating of music producer Michel Zecler — exposed in video footage published last week — has become a focus of anger against the police, who critics accuse of institutionalized racism and targeting black and Arab people. Tens of thousands protested Saturday against a security bill, which would restrict the right to publish images of on-duty police. Police said 81 people were arrested at the protests, with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin saying the violence was unacceptable. An investigating magistrate ruled early Monday morning to charge the officers with “willful violence by a person holding public authority” and forgery, a judicial source told AFP. Two remain behind bars, while the other two were put on conditional release, the source added. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz on Sunday had called for the officers to be charged specifically with using racial abuse.Fire-fighters pull off a fire on a burning car during a demonstration against a security law that would restrict sharing images of police, Nov. 28, 2020 in Paris.Racial abuse chargesAhead of the charges, the four officers had been questioned by the police’s National Police Inspectorate General on suspicion of using violence and racial abuse. Heitz said three of the officers should remain in custody “to avoid the perpetrators communicating or putting pressure on witnesses.” He also called for charges of intentional violence, racial abuse and posting a false police report. The fourth officer, who arrived on the scene later and fired a tear gas canister, should be freed under conditions and charged with intentional violence, he said. The four officers had a good service record before the incident, he said, and claimed they had acted “out of fear.” Zecler had been stopped for not wearing a mask and because of a strong smell of cannabis. But only a tiny quantity of the substance was found, he said. Lawyers representing three of the officers declined to comment Monday on the charges. Law controversyCommentators say that the images of the beating, first published by the Loopsider news site, might never have been made public if the contentious Article 24 of the security legislation was made law. The bill would criminalize publishing images of on-duty police with the intent of harming their “physical or psychological integrity.” It was passed by the National Assembly although it is awaiting Senate approval. 

Court Orders France to Rethink 30-Person Limit on Worship 

France’s highest administrative court on Sunday ordered a rethink of a 30-person attendance limit for religious services put in place by the government to slow down the spread of coronavirus.The measure took effect this weekend as France relaxes some virus restrictions, but it faced opposition by places of worship and the faithful for being arbitrary and unreasonable. Even before the ruling, several bishops had announced they would not enforce the restrictions and some churches were expected defy it.The Council of State has ordered that Prime Minister Jean Castex modify the measure within three days.French churches, mosques and synagogues started opening their doors again to worshippers this weekend — but only a few of them, as France cautiously starts reopening after its latest virus lockdown.Many people expressed irritation outside several Paris churches where priests held services for groups that numbered over 30.“People respected social distancing perfectly, each to his place and with enough space so I don’t think there’s anything to worry about here,” Laurent Frémont told The Associated Press on his way home after Mass.To attend Mass, they had to book tickets online and give their names on their way in. However, the church’s protocol didn’t seem to help limit the number of people inside the building.Asked whether they would stay if the crowd was too large, most said they would. “I really think you couldn’t do better from a sanitary point of view,” said Humbline Frémont.For some, the new rules stirred up fears. French Catholics were sharing rules and recommendations on social media for how to behave if the police arrive at a church for a head count.Farid Kachour, secretary general of the group running the mosque of Montermeil, a heavily immigrant suburb northeast of Paris, says that his mosque simply wouldn’t open with too few people permitted.“We can’t choose people” allowed to enter for prayer. “We don’t want to create discontent among the faithful,” he said.Kachour noted that Muslims pray five times a day, further complicating the situation. To respect the rules, the mosque would need 40 services a day to allow all the faithful to pray, he said.Places of worship were allowed to continue during France’s latest nationwide lockdown, which is coming to an end in December, but regular prayer services were banned due to health concerns. Around the world, some religious services have been linked to coronavirus clusters, including superspreading events.France has reported over 52,000 virus-related deaths, the third-highest pandemic death toll in Europe after Britain and Italy.“Non-essential” shops reopened in France on Saturday, but bars and restaurants will not reopen before Jan. 20. 

Dozens Reported Detained in Anti-Lukashenko Marches in Belarus 

Authorities in Belarus have detained dozens of protesters amid ongoing demonstrations aimed at ousting strongman Alexander Lukashenko from the presidency. 
At least 130 people were reported detained in Minsk and Barauliany, according to the Vyasna human rights group. Other detentions were reported across the country. This is the second week in which the Belarus demonstrations have been held under the rubric March of Neighbors. The opposition has adopted the strategy as a way of decentralizing the protests and making it more difficult for police to round up activists. RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported that law enforcement used tear gas and stun grenades against some demonstrators. Mobile Internet services were not available in Minsk and the central metro stations were closed. 
It was unclear how many people participated in the demonstrations. 
Belarus has seen nearly continuous protests since a disputed presidential election on August 9 gave Lukashenka a sixth presidential term. The United States and the European Union have not recognized Lukashenka’s reelection. 
The opposition has been calling for Lukashenka’s resignation, the release of all political prisoners, and a new election. 
During a visit to a Minsk hospital on November 27, Lukashenka implied that he would resign if a new constitution was adopted. 
“I will not work as president with you under the new constitution,” state media quoted him as saying. 
Lukashenka has called several times for a new constitution, but the opposition has dismissed the statements as a bid to buy time and stay in power. 
A former collective farm manager, Lukashenka, 66, has ruled Belarus since 1994. Demonstrations were reported in almost all districts of the capital. 
One video posted on social media appeared to show police in Minsk dragging away an unconscious person near the Pushkin metro station. It was unclear how many people participated in the demonstrations. 
Belarus has seen nearly continuous protests since a disputed presidential election on August 9 gave Lukashenko a sixth presidential term. The United States and the European Union have not recognized Lukashenko’s reelection. 
The opposition has been calling for Lukashenko’s resignation, the release of all political prisoners, and a new election. 
During a visit to a Minsk hospital on November 27, Lukashenko implied that he would resign if a new constitution was adopted. 
“I will not work as president with you under the new constitution,” state media quoted him as saying. 
Lukashenko has called several times for a new constitution, but the opposition has dismissed the statements as a bid to buy time and stay in power. 
A former collective farm manager, Lukashenko, 66, has ruled Belarus since 1994. 

Pandemic Calls off Christmas Markets in Europe

The European plazas where people would usually gather at crowded stalls to partake in hot mulled wine, gingerbread, sausages and other delicacies are just empty squares.Christmas markets, a cherished tradition in Germany and neighboring countries, have joined the long list of annual traditions that were canceled or diminished this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. November saw many European countries impose partial or tougher lockdowns as new virus cases soared. The restrictions are either being retained or only partially loosened as Advent begins Sunday.Nuremberg’s sprawling, bustling Christkindlesmarkt, one of Germany’s best known holiday markets and traditionally a big tourist draw, was called off a month ago. Markets across the country — including in Frankfurt, Dortmund and many in Berlin — have suffered the same fate, with authorities canceling the events or organizers concluding that it didn’t make sense to push ahead with their plans. Christmas lightings are pictured where the Christmas market usually takes place, Nov.27, 2020, in Strasbourg, eastern France. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the well-known festive market will not be taking place this year.Over the border in France, the roughly 300 stalls of Strasbourg’s popular Christmas market won’t go up this year. And it’s the same story in the Belgian capital, Brussels.  

Britain, France in Pact to Stop Illegal Migrant Crossings

Britain and France on Saturday signed an agreement aimed at ending illegal migration across the English Channel.Starting Dec. 1, patrols on French beaches will be doubled, and technology, including drones and radar, will be used detect the would-be migrant crossings, British Home Secretary Priti Patel said.Patel said the agreement would help the two countries “make channel crossings completely unviable.”She said in the past 10 years Britain had given France nearly $200 million to tackle immigration.More than 6,000 people tried to cross the Channel from Jan. 1 through August of this year.French authorities have said that in September they had intercepted more than 1,300 people attempting to reach Britain.Seven people have died so far this year trying to cross to Britain, and four died last year.

UK, EU Resume Face-to-face Trade Talks With Time Running Out

Teams from Britain and the European Union resumed face-to-face talks on a post-Brexit trade deal Saturday, with both sides sounding gloomy about striking an agreement in the little time that remains.EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier returned to London to meet his U.K. counterpart, David Frost. Talks have been held virtually for the past week as Barnier completed a spell of self-isolation after a member of his team tested positive for the coronavirus.COVID-19 is just one complication in negotiations that remain snagged over key issues including fishing rights and fair-competition rules. Barnier said Friday that the remote talks had made little progress and the “same significant divergences persist.”The U.K. left the EU early this year but remained part of the bloc’s economic embrace during an 11-month transition as the two sides tried to negotiate a new free-trade deal to take effect January 1. Talks have slipped past the mid-November date long seen as a deadline to secure a deal in time for it to be approved and ratified by lawmakers in Britain and the EU.If there is no deal, New Year’s Day will bring huge disruption, with the overnight imposition of tariffs and other barriers to U.K.-EU trade. That will hurt both sides, but the burden will fall most heavily on Britain, which does almost half its trade with the EU.While both sides want a deal, they have fundamental differences about what it entails. The 27-nation EU accuses Britain of seeking to retain access to the bloc’s vast market without agreeing to abide by its rules and wants strict guarantees on “level playing field” standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU.The U.K. claims the EU is failing to respect its independence and making demands it has not placed on other countries with whom it has free-trade deals, such as Canada.To reach a deal the EU will have to curb its demands on continued access to U.K. fishing waters, and Britain must agree to some alignment with the bloc’s rules — difficult issues for politicians on both sides.British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Irish leader Micheal Martin on Friday that he remained committed “to reaching a deal that respects the sovereignty of the U.K.,” Johnson’s office said.

French Protesters, Police Clash Over New Security Legislation

Violent clashes erupted Saturday in Paris as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest new security legislation, with tensions intensified by the police beating and racial abuse of a Black man that shocked France.Several fires were started in Paris, sending acrid smoke into the air, as protesters vented their anger against the security law that would restrict the publication of police officers’ faces.About 46,000 people marched in Paris and 133,000 in total nationwide in about 70 cities, including in Bordeaux, Lille, Montpellier and Nantes, the Interior Ministry said. Protest organizers said about 500,000 joined nationwide, including 200,000 in the capital.President Emmanuel Macron said late Friday that the images of the beating of Black music producer Michel Zecler by police officers in Paris last weekend “shame us.” The incident magnified concerns about alleged systemic racism in the police force.”Police everywhere, justice nowhere,” “police state” and “smile while you are beaten” were among the slogans brandished as protesters marched from Place de la Republique to the nearby Place de la Bastille.”We have felt for a long time to have been the victim of institutionalized racism from the police,” said Mohamed Magassa 35, who works in a reception center for minors. “But now we feel that this week all of France has woken up.”People with banners and posters attend a demonstration against security legislation, in Paris, Nov. 28, 2020.”The fundamental and basic liberties of our democracy are being attacked — freedom of expression and information,” added Sophie Misiraca, 46, a lawyer.Several cars, a newspaper kiosk and a brasserie were set on fire close to Place de la Bastille, police said.Some protesters threw stones at the security forces, who responded by firing tear gas and using water cannon, an AFP correspondent said.Police complained that protesters impeded fire services from putting out the blazes and said nine people had been detained by the early evening.French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin condemned “unacceptable” violence against the police, saying 37 members of the security forces had been injured nationwide.Investigation launchedAn investigation has been opened against the four police involved, but commentators say the images, first published by the Loopsider news site, might never have been made public if the contentious Article 24 of the security legislation had been made law.The article would criminalize the publication of images of on-duty police officers with the intent of harming their “physical or psychological integrity.” It was passed by the National Assembly, although it is awaiting Senate approval.Cars burn during a demonstration against the “Global Security Bill” opposed by rights groups in France, in Paris, Nov. 28, 2020.The controversy over the law and police violence is developing into another crisis for the government as Macron confronts the pandemic, its economic fallout and a host of problems on the international stage.In a sign that the government could be preparing to backtrack, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced Friday that he would appoint a commission to redraft Article 24.But he was forced into a U-turn even on this proposal after parliament speaker Richard Ferrand, a close Macron ally, accused the premier of trying to usurp the role of parliament.For critics, the legislation is further evidence of a slide to the right by Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist promising liberal reform of France.”The police violence has left Emmanuel Macron facing a political crisis,” said the Le Monde daily.’Anger and fear’The issue has also pressured the high-flying Darmanin, who was promoted to the job this summer despite being targeted by a rape probe, with Le Monde saying tensions were growing between him and the Elysee.The images of the beating of Zecler emerged days after the police forcibly removed a migrant camp in central Paris.A series of high-profile cases against police officers over mistreatment of Black or Arab citizens has raised accusations of institutionalized racism. The force has insisted violations are the fault of isolated individuals.Three of the police involved in the beating of Zecler are being investigated for using racial violence and all four are being held for questioning after their detention Saturday was extended for another 24 hours, prosecutors said.In a letter seen by AFP, Paris police chief Didier Lallement wrote to officers warning them they risked facing “anger and fear” in the coming weeks but insisted he could count on their “sense of honor and ethics.”