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Pope Francis to return Vatican’s Parthenon marble fragments to Greece

Pope Francis meets Archbishop Ieronymos II, leader of Greece's Orthodox Church, in Athens in 2021. (George Vitsaras/AP)
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Pope Francis has ordered the Vatican Museums to return three Parthenon fragments to Greece amid a global reckoning in which Western institutions have begun to return remains and artifacts to their countries of origin — or have refused demands to do so.

The marble sculptural fragments, which include 5th-century B.C. remnants of a 520-foot frieze that once covered the outer walls of the famed temple and showed a procession for the goddess Athena, have been held in the Vatican Museums’ collections since the 19th century.

In a statement released Friday, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports expressed gratitude for the pope’s “generous” decision and hope that the move would put pressure on the British Museum, which has dozens of Parthenon fragments, to return the controversial Elgin marbles. Avoiding the hot-button issues of restitution and repatriation, Pope Francis framed the return as a “donation” to Greek Archbishop Ieronymos II and “a concrete sign of his sincere desire to follow in the ecumenical path of truth,” the Associated Press reported.

Conversation has swirled around the Parthenon fragments in recent weeks after a Greek newspaper report said the British Museum was in secret talks with the Greek government about returning the Elgin marbles.

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During the 1687 Venetian siege of the Acropolis, many of the Parthenon’s friezes and decorative elements were destroyed. In the early 19th century, British diplomat Thomas Bruce, better known as Lord Elgin, sent more than half of what remained to Britain — a move that critics, including Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, consider theft. (Elgin infamously wrote that such artifacts would look good in his home.)

Today, most of the surviving marbles are in the British Museum or the Acropolis Museum, while a handful remain elsewhere.

The British Museum denied claims it would return the artifacts, saying in a statement that while it is open to “partnership” with Greece, “We’re not going to dismantle our great collection as it tells a unique story of our common humanity.” The museum has for decades rebuked efforts to get it to return the marbles, citing policies against deaccessioning.

What makes a collection “great” and who gets to hear that “unique story” are matters of fierce debate among museums these days. For some institutions — such as the Smithsonian, which recently updated its collecting policy — the moral imperative to return some objects outweighs other concerns. The pope’s decision to return Greek artifacts is one of many similar acts around the world.

Recently, several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, returned to Nigeria artifacts known as the Benin bronzes, which were stolen by the British in a deadly 1897 invasion. Last year, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which was once on view at the Bible Museum and is believed to have been looted from an Iraqi museum, was sent back.

This is not the first time the Vatican Museums have returned objects held in their collections. In October, the museums gave three ancient mummies back to Peru, and in 2008, they returned one Parthenon marble to Greece on a one-year loan. It also might not be the last. When the pope visited Canada this summer, Indigenous groups in the country pleaded for the return of several objects housed in the Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum.

For now, though, the pope’s decision seems to be focused on repairing relations with the Greek Orthodox Church. Pope Francis last met with Archbishop Ieronymos II on a visit to Greece in December 2021, during which he apologized for the Catholic Church’s role fomenting division with the Greek Orthodox Church. Tensions were high on that trip; a Greek Orthodox priest was caught on video shouting “Pope, you are a heretic,” at the Catholic leader, reflecting historic distrust between the churches.

The artifacts the pope plans to return to Greece include a marble head of a boy, a head of a horse and a bearded male head. The Acropolis Museum in Athens has a Parthenon gallery that was built to house the marbles, but it is not yet clear where they will go once they are back in Greece. A date for their return has not been announced.