The Vatican has returned three fragments of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece in a move that could increase pressure on the British Museum to do the same.
The sculptures, which represent a horse and two male heads, were originally created as part of the famous Parthenon temple in Athens but had been held in the Vatican Museums for more than two centuries.
Their return was discussed during a visit to Athens by Pope Francis two years ago, and they will soon be added to the collection at the Acropolis Museum.
Greece’s culture minister Lina Mendoni said: “Initiatives like these show the way, how the pieces of the Parthenon can be reunited, healing the wounds caused by barbaric hands so many years ago.
“This takes us to the just and moral demand of the entire Greek people, and of this government and its prime minister, for the final return of all the sculptures of the Parthenon.”
Around half of the original sculpture survive today – of these, around half are in Athens and half in the British Museum.
Ms Mendoni said her country “cannot recognise possession and ownership by the British Museum because it considers the sculptures to be there as a product of theft”.
The sculptures were taken in the early 19th century by British diplomat Lord Elgin before Greece became independent from the Ottoman Empire.
Greece has been campaigning for years to have the sculptures returned from London, saying they are part of the country’s heritage.
The British Museum, however, says that giving them up could undermine museum collections worldwide and that Elgin had acted with the “full knowledge and permission of the legal authorities of the day in both Athens and London”.
On Friday, at a ceremony for the sculptures’ return from the Vatican, the leader of Greece’s Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos II said: “This act by Pope Francis is of historical significance and has a positive impact on all levels … We hope it sets an example for others.”
Last year, another sculpture fragment from the Parthenon temple, depicting a foot of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, was returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily.