Vatican hands Parthenon marbles to Greek representatives

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican officially signed the papers transferring to the Orthodox Church of Greece three marble fragments from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece; the fragments had been in the Vatican Museums' collection for about 200 years.

As he prepared to sign the papers, Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president of the commission governing Vatican City State, told representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church and of the Greek government March 7 that it was "an important and significant gesture" of renewed friendship between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The Vatican had announced in December that Pope Francis had decided to give the fragments to Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All 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 B.C.

With the three pieces sitting on a table nearby, Cardinal Vérgez said the fragments had come to the Vatican "as part of regular purchases at the end of the 19th century" and now would be "reunited in their place of origin as an ecumenical gesture of re-found friendship between our churches."

Father Emmanouil Papamikroulis, representing Archbishop Ieronymos, and Lina Mendoni, Greek minister of culture and sports, participated in the brief Vatican ceremony along with the cardinal and Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums.

Cardinal Vérgez said the gifting of the fragments, which have been seen by millions of visitors from around the world, shows how "the art collections of the Roman pontiff can be a privileged point of friendship" between people of different nations and faiths.

A formal ceremony is planned in Athens March 24 to welcome the fragments home. A representative of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity is expected to attend.