An agreement that will see the Vatican return to Greece three Parthenon Marbles fragments it obtained under unexplained circumstances is being seen as putting pressure on the British Museum to return stolen marbles it’s held for 200 years.
In what was called an “ecumenical donation” and not a state-to-state transfer, The Vatican and Greece reached a deal that will see the fragments returned.
The head of the Vatican city-state, Cardinal Fernando Vergez, signed an agreement during a private Vatican Museums ceremony with Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni and a representative of the Orthodox Christian Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, His Beatitude Ieronymos II.
Cardinal Vérgez said the fragments had come to the Vatican “as part of regular purchases at the end of the 19th Century” without saying who sold them or how they were obtained.
The British Museum has steadfastly refused all entreaties to send back to Greece stolen marble friezes ripped off the Parthenon by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin, who sold them after getting into financial trouble.
Elgin said he had permission from the ruling Ottoman Empire at the time, which didn’t own them, but which the British Museum cited in saying they were legally obtained and refusing to return them.
The museum has offered only to loan Greece its own treasures – with the stipulation of giving up ownership – and demanding Greece loan other artifacts until the marbles are sent back to London.
Fr. Emmanuel Papamikroulis told The Associated Press that the Greek Orthodox Church and Archbishop were grateful to Pope Francis for the deal despite not knowing how the Vatican got them.
“It has taken place at a difficult time for our country, and it will hopefully provide some sense of pride and happiness. I hope this initiative is followed by others,” he said in a telephone interview from the Vatican, where he was touring the gardens after the signing ceremony.
“This initiative does help heal wounds of the past and it demonstrates that when Christian leaders work together, they can resolve issues in a practical way,” Fr. Papamikroulis added.
The fragments are expected to arrive in Athens for a March 24 ceremony planned to receive them, a day before Greek Independence Day celebrations and a Greece still hopes for the British Museum to relent.
Cardinal Vérgez told representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church and of the Greek government that it was “an important and significant gesture” of renewed friendship between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The Vatican had announced in December, 2022 that Pope Francis had decided to give the fragments to Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and Greece “as a concrete sign of the sincere desire to continue on the ecumenical journey of bearing witness to the truth.”
The fragments – depicting the head of a horse, the head of a bearded man and the head of a boy – originally were part of the decorative sculptures on the famous Greek temple built on the Acropolis by Pericles in the 5th century BC.
The British Museum is still displaying the stolen sculptures, mostly remnants of a 160-meter-long (520-foot) frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)