Pope Francis has decided to return to Greece three 2,500-year-old pieces of the Parthenon that have been in the papal collections of the Vatican Museums for two centuries.
The Vatican said in a brief statement that the pope gave them to Archbishop Ieronymos II, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church and Greece’s spiritual leader, as a “donation” and “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to continue the ecumenical path”. to walk”. of the truth”.
Standing on the Acropolis in Athens, the Parthenon was completed in the fifth century BC as a temple to the goddess Athena, and its decorative friezes contain some of the greatest examples of ancient Greek sculpture.
The three fragments of the Vatican include a horse’s head, a boy’s head and a bearded man’s head, which have been held by the Vatican since the 19th century. The boy’s head was loaned to Greece for a year in 2008.
The decision to “donate” the sculptures to the Greek Orthodox Church and not return them directly to the Greek state is widely seen as a way for the Vatican to avoid setting a precedent that other treasures in its museums, as many First Nations groups and colonized nations around the world require Western museums to return artifacts and works of art looted during colonization.
Greece’s Ministry of Culture and Sport expressed its gratitude for the pope’s “generous” decision and hoped the move would put pressure on the British Museum. The Acropolis Museum also welcomed the decision. It is not yet clear what plans Ieronymos has for the small sculptures.
The Vatican’s decision, which is expected to take some time to implement, is likely to put further pressure on the British Museum, which has refused to return its larger collection of Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles. . of the museum since 1816.
For decades, Greece has appealed to Britain to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures taken from the Parthenon temple by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 1800s when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire , the then ruler of Greece.
The British Museum has repeatedly ruled out returning the marbles, including about half of the 160-metre frieze that adorned the Parthenon, and insists they were obtained legally.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that museum trustees had held secret talks with the Greek prime minister about returning the marbles. The Greek government said no decision was imminent, while the British Museum said while it wanted a “new Parthenon partnership with Greece”, “we are not going to dismantle our great collection because it tells a unique story of our common humanity” .
Unesco, the cultural organization of the United Nations, has urged Greece and Britain to reach a settlement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report