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29 March, 2000
The return of the Parthenon Marbles dominated, as expected, contacts here on Tuesday between a committee of visiting British MPs and two Greek ministers, with the latter terming discussions as a "tentative first step at dialogue" over a cultural "Gordian Knot" separating Athens and London.
Although the head of the British House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport emphasized during a brief press conference that the committee neither represented nor exercised government policy, the Greek side nonetheless termed the contacts a "very good omen".
The committee will issue a non-binding report over its inquiry on the topic of "cultural property: return and illicit trade", complete with recommendations, to the Blair government.
Asked to define the difference between cultural property "historically removed" as opposed to "acquired as a result of illicit trade", British MP and committee chair Gerald Kaufman said this definition lay at the heart of the matter, adding that the Marbles controversy would be solved when "we have an answer to that question (of definition)."
Both Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and Culture Minister Elizabeth Papazoi noted in their initial remarks that Greece only requests the return of the Parthenon friezes, as paramount elements comprising the uniqueness of the Parthenon edifice, and not other cultural treasures displayed in foreign museums. They also called discussions with the 10-member British MP delegation "friendly and constructive."
The return of the exquisite Classical friezes that adorned the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena atop the Acropolis for centuries has been a "battle cry" for successive Greek governments for the past two decades. The late Greek culture minister and film star Melina Mercouri catapulted the issue into the international spotlight in the early '80s.
However, the British Museum in London, where the friezes are on display, has adamantly refused to discuss the probability of the Parthenon Marbles' return, while subsequent British governments have also been hesitant or even hostile to pressure the museum's board over the issue - even after recent exposes detailing poor maintenance by the museum's staff in the late 1930s.
The Parthenon friezes, which date from between 447 BC and 432 BC, were removed from atop the Parthenon in Ottoman-occupied Athens in the early 19th century by British diplomat Lord Elgin, who then sold them to the British Museum.
Source: Athens News Agency