Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians were on Saturday locked in dispute over an 800-year-old war crime and a box of 1,600-year-old bones that was meant to have brought them a giant step closer to reunification.
At a ceremony in St Peter's Basilica yesterday the Vatican handed back relics belonging to two saints of inestimable importance to the Orthodox world. It had been hoped the return of the remains of the 4th century prelates, St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Theologian, would be the most important symbolic contribution to relations between the two churches since the meeting between Pope Paul VI and the then titular head of the Orthodox Christians 40 years ago.
But as the two men's successors, Pope John Paul II and the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, presided over the ritual, the Pope's spokesman issued a statement contradicting the Orthodox version of history.
It also emerged that the Vatican would not be handing back all the bones. A single line in a booklet prepared for yesterday's ceremony said the pontiff was returning only "a part of the relics."
The Vatican appeared to have been stung into action by Orthodox claims the bones were stolen by Crusaders.
In a sermon yesterday, Patriarch Bartholomew said the handing back of the relics was a "warning to all those who arbitrarily possess and retain treasures of the faith, piety and civilization of others."
A press release from the ecumenical patriarchate last week said the bones of both saints were stolen after Crusaders seized the then capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople -- the modern-day Istanbul -- in 1204.
"After the pillage that followed, the holy relics of both these two saints were taken first to Venice, and later on to Rome," said the statement.
But according to the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, St Gregory's bones "reached Rome in the 8th century, at the time of the Iconoclastic persecution, so that they could be kept safe." An earlier statement said they were brought by Byzantine nuns. As for St John, the Holy See's daily bulletin of last Wednesday stated that they had been transferred to Rome "probably at the time of the Latin empire of Constantinople (1204-1258)."
Navarro-Valls said "certain media" had portrayed the pontiff's gesture as a "reparation" and a means for the Pope to "beg pardon" on behalf of the Catholic church for the removal of the relics from the ecumenical patriarchate during the crusade.
This interpretation, said Navarro-Valls, was "historically inexact." The handover was a "return, not a restitution." The Pope himself did some sly point-scoring in a sermon yesterday, noting the two saints "always professed their communion with this Apostolic see, the Church of Rome." Both men died long before the schism that split Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics in 1054.
St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Theologian are two of the three so-called hierarchs whose annual feast day, Jan. 30, is an Orthodox holiday. Two days of celebration and ceremony have been organized to mark the return of their relics to the patriarchate, which is still located in Istanbul.
The bones, resting on cushions of yellow velvet, were handed over to the Patriarch in specially-made caskets of crystal and alabaster.
He kissed the caskets before they were carried away on biers by Vatican ushers to be loaded onto a jet for their return journey.