Pope to return three Parthenon fragments to Athens

Pope Francis is to return to Greece three fragments of Athens' Parthenon temple, in what the Vatican called a gesture of friendship.

Pope to return three Parthenon fragments to Athens

The fragments from the Parthenon on the Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been held for centuries in the papal collection and Vatican Museums.

Francis has decided “to donate” them to the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, “as a concrete sign” of his desire to nurture interreligious relations, the Vatican said.

No date was given for the return of the fragments.

Greece’s cultural ministry welcomed the restitution, saying in a statement that it appreciated the pope’s “spiritual and fraternal gesture towards the Greek Orthodox Church”.

The Parthenon is one of the most famous ancient monuments in the world.

The temple was originally dedicated to the goddess Athena, before being transformed into a church and then a mosque.

The marble fragments include the head of a horse, one of the four horses drawing Athena’s mythical chariot, according to the Vatican Museums website.

It comes from the west front of the building, on which Athena and Poseidon — the god of the sea — were shown competing for dominion over Attica.

The second is the head of a young boy, believed to be depicted carrying a tray of voting cakes, which were offered during a procession to commemorate the founding of Athens.

The last is a bearded male head from an area of the building featuring a battle between the Lapiths, a mythical group of people, and Centaurs — creatures part horse, part man.

The Parthenon has not been a place of worship since it was partially destroyed during an attack by the Venetians in 1687, then looted.

Its fragments were scattered throughout the main museums of the world. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Greece has been trying to recover

In 2008, the Vatican returned a fragment from the North frieze of the Parthenon, which it had been given in the early 19th century.

But others are less willing to set what some see as a dangerous precedent on returns.

The UK government warned the British Museum in London this month against a possible plan to hand back key pieces, saying it was legally forbidden to break up its vast collection.

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‘Demographic winter’: Pope Francis urges Italy’s government to help families

Pope Francis on Friday called for Italy's politicians to find solutions to reverse the plunging birthrate, saying young people struggle to start families in today's "savage" economic climate.

'Demographic winter': Pope Francis urges Italy’s government to help families

he 86-year-old pontiff opened the second day of a Rome conference involving politicians, business and social leaders focused on the steeply declining birthrate in Italy – a figure that experts warn will lead to the impoverishment of the country.

For the first time, last year Italy’s births fell below the threshold of 400,000, at 393,000, according to national statistics institute Istat.

That compared to 713,499 deaths, in a population of around 58 million.

READ ALSO: The real reasons young Italians aren’t having kids

Francis, who received a standing ovation as he appeared onstage to address the conference alongside Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, said that young people today “live in a social climate in which starting a family is turning into a Titanic effort”.

He cited the difficulty of trying to plan for the future amid low salaries and high rents in Italy, where the population is ageing and where many young people struggle to find stable full-time jobs.

“The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities,” he said.

He acknowledged the “almost insurmountable constraints” on young women who are effectively forced to choose between a career and motherhood.

Given the high cost of raising children, people were revising their priorities, he added.

“We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realise their family dream and are forced to lower the bar, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, travelling, jealously guarding leisure time,” he said.

“We need to prepare fertile ground for a new spring to blossom and leave this demographic winter behind us,” Francis said, calling for “forward-looking policies” to avoid Italy “(degenerating) into sadness”.

“Reviving the birthrate means repairing the forms of social exclusion that are affecting young people and their future,” he added.

“Have you ever imagined a world without babies?” was the provocative question used in publicity for the conference, organised by the Birthrate Foundation, a group with links to Catholic associations that advocate for families.

Despite the religious ties, conference speakers mostly steered clear of some of controversial issues related to Italy’s declining population, such as abortion, surrogacy and migration.

Speakers concentrated primarily on discussing possible solutions including welfare, more childcare and tax relief.

Still, Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, a key figure in Meloni’s far-right, nationalist Brothers of Italy party, took the opportunity on Thursday to say that the birthrate issue was of concern “because we want to safeguard the culture, languages of Italy”

READ ALSO: 11 statistics that show the state of gender equality in Italy

Meloni, who won the largest share of the women’s vote in September elections but does not consider herself a feminist, has made mothers and families a central part of her discourse.

Her government has not however introduced any concrete policies aimed at addressing the issues faced by young people and families in Italy which experts say are closely tied to the plunging birth rate.

Italy’s population was on the rise until 2014, when it began reversing.

On Thursday, Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti warned that by 2042, Italy’s declining birthrate would end up reducing its gross domestic product (GDP) by 18 percent.

“I think that it should be strongly reiterated that the economic system is closely correlated to births,” Giorgetti said.