Cyprus

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Photo Credit: The Associated Press

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A plan to seize up to 10 percent of savings accounts in Cyprus to help pay for a €15.8 billion ($20.4 billion) financial bailout was met with fury Monday, and the government shut down banks until later this week while lawmakers wrangled over how to keep the island nation from bankruptcy.

Although the euro and stock prices of European banks fell, global financial markets largely remained calm, and there was little sense that bank account holders elsewhere across the continent faced similar risk.

Political leaders in Cyprus scrambled to devise a new plan that would not be so burdensome for people with less than €100,000 ($129,290) in the bank.

The authorities delayed a parliamentary vote on the seizure of €5.8 billion ($7.5 billion) and ordered banks to remain shut until Thursday while they try to modify the deal, which must be approved by other eurozone governments. Once a deal is in place, they will be ready to lend Cyprus €10 billion ($13 billion) in rescue loans.

A rejection of the package could see the country go bankrupt and possibly drop out of the euro currency — an outcome that would be even more damaging to financial markets’ confidence.

Even while playing down the chance of fresh market turmoil, experts warned that the surprise move broke an important taboo against making depositors pay for Europe’s bailouts.

“It’s a precedent for all European countries. Their money in every bank is not safe,” said lawyer Simos Angelides at an angry protest outside parliament in Cyprus’ capital, Nicosia, where people chanted, “Thieves, thieves!”

Eurozone finance ministers held a telephone conference Monday night, and concluded that small depositors should not be hit as hard as others. They said the Cypriot authorities will stagger the deposit seizures more, but they remained firm in demanding that the overall sum of money raised by the seizures remain the same.

In the short term, there was little sign of a new explosion in the European financial crisis. Stock markets dropped in early hours but stabilized by the close. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 62.05 points, or 0.4 percent, to 14,452.06 Monday. The euro fell 0.6 percent — a bad day, but hardly a token of impending doom. 

This undated photo provided by the Cyprus church shows the fresco of Christ Pantocrator that the Church of Cyprus said will be returned to the island next year along with other rare frescoes from an American museum where they have been exhibited for the last 28 years. (Photo courtesy of the Church of Cyprus)

NICOSIA, Cyprus— A Houston-based museum exhibiting a set of rare 13th-century frescoes that were looted from Cyprus more than three decades ago has agreed to return them, the leader of the divided island’s Orthodox Christian church said Friday.

Archbishop Chrysostomos II said the Menil Collection plans to return the Byzantine frescoes early next year after the church insisted that they not “allow them to remain there even for one second longer.”

“I salute this decision by the Menil Collection because embarking on a court battle would honor neither us nor the Collection,” the Archbishop said.

Antiquities smugglers looted the frescoes from the Ayios Themomianos church in northern Cyprus following a 1974 Turkish invasion that split the island into a Turkish-speaking north and a Greek-speaking south.

Menil Collection founder Dominique de Menil obtained the frescoes in 1983 and struck an agreement with the Cyprus church to keep and exhibit them at a purpose-built chapel in Houston.

A decade later, the Cyprus church granted the museum a loan extension until February 2012 in recognition of its efforts to reassemble and restore the fragmented frescoes.

But Chrysostomos said he turned down requests to keep the frescoes longer, offering instead to dispatch an iconographer to recreate them on the chapel’s dome and apses, along with a gift of 10 late-19th and early-20th century icons.

“While this moment is bittersweet, the story of these frescoes — from their rescue, to their long-term loan to us, and now to their return — very much reflects the essence of the Menil Collection, its focus on the aesthetic and the spiritual, and our responsible stewardship of works from other nations and cultures,” Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, said in a Sept. 23 letter to friends and supporters.

The frescoes depict Christ Pantocrator surrounded by a frieze of angels, as well as the Preparation of the Throne attended by Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist.

Another section depicts the Virgin flanked by Archangels Michael and Gabriel.

The Cyprus Antiquities Department will oversee the transportation of the frescoes back to Europe, department Director Maria Hadjicosti said.

The church says scores of religious artifacts, including icons and mosaics, were looted from Greek Cypriot churches in the island’s north.

Many have since appeared on the international art market. Chrysostomos said “millions” have been spent purchasing them with the purpose of repatriating them. The church’s biggest success was the recovery of several priceless 6th century mosaics.

“We’ll rest only when all our antiquities, all our ecclesiastical objects return to where they belong,” he said.

Christianity in Cyprus stretches to the faith’s earliest years. The Apostle Paul is said to have preached the gospel in Cyprus in A.D. 45 and converted the island’s Roman governor Sergius Paulus — the first Roman official to undergo conversion.