NEW YORK-George Demacopoulos, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, traveled to Istanbul with Vatican officials on Nov. 30 to oversee the return of treasured Greek Orthodox relics seized by crusaders 800 years ago. The move is seen by Orthodox Church officials as a historic step toward reconciliation between the two churches, and Demacopoulos played a key role in securing the return of the relics.

“This is a high point of friendship between the Catholic and Orthodox churches,” an official at the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate said in a press release. “This is truly historic.”

At the request of the Orthodox Church, Demacopoulos tracked the relics of patriarch Saints John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen—“two of the most important church fathers in Orthodox tradition,” according to Demacopoulos—to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. He then wrote a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, to have the relics returned to Istanbul. The patriarch presented the request to Vatican officials, and Pope John Paul II agreed to return the relics.

The relics were given to Bartholomew I by the pope during a Nov. 27 ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica, before being transported on Nov. 30 to Istanbul for a ceremony at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George. At a dinner reception in Istanbul, Demacopoulos delivered a lecture about the lives and significance of the two saints.

“The return of the relics will begin to erase some of the bad blood that exists between the two churches,” said Demacopoulos, referring to the 11th-century split into Eastern and Western Christianity, mainly over the growing power of the papacy. “It will help to remove some of the acrimony, which will be necessary for addressing future theological questions.”

Bartholomew I and John Paul II have both emphasized reconciliation between the two churches. During a visit to Greece in 2001, the pope offered an apology long sought by the Orthodox Church for Roman Catholic involvement in the raid of Constantinople 800 years ago.

“My role is only a by-product of Fordham’s commitment to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox relationship,” said Demacopoulos. “Fordham has historically been a place of cooperation between [the two religions], and this sets up Fordham to be the logical foundation for further improvement.”