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ATHENS (Reuters) - The Vatican returned a small fragment of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece on Wednesday on a one-year loan, fuelling calls for the British Museum to hand back its own priceless sculptures from the ancient temple.
The loan of the fragment, one of three in the Vatican Museum's vast collection of antiquities, follows a request for its return by Greece's late Orthodox Archbishop Christopoulos at a meeting with Pope Benedict in 2006.
In recent years Greece has stepped up its campaign to recover large sections of the frieze removed from the Parthenon in 1801 by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
The Vatican's fragment of the frieze, measuring 24 by 25 cm, depicts the head of a man carrying a tray. Just over a month ago Italy handed over a small section of the Parthenon Marbles housed in a museum in Palermo, Sicily.
"This is a very important event," said Greek Culture Minister Michalis Liapis. "It should be an example to follow for the return of the Parthenon Marbles."
The Elgin Marbles comprise roughly half the 160 meter (yard) frieze which adorned the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, completed in 432 BC as the crowning glory of Athens' Golden Age.
They were bought by the British government in 1816 from the bankrupt Elgin, and given to the British Museum "in perpetuity."
The British Museum has refused to return the treasures, which it says were acquired by Elgin through a legitimate contract with the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece.
It also said its marbles were in better condition than those left behind, which suffered from the Athens pollution.
Greece says the completion of a 100-million-euro museum at the foot of the Acropolis, which will open to the public next year, means the time is ripe for their return.
Sweden, Germany and Italy have returned pieces taken from the Acropolis, but many artifacts remain in collections in Denmark, Germany, Austria and France, archaeologists say.
Giandomenico Spinola, head of the Vatican Museum's classical antiquities department, said it was too early to say whether the loan of the piece would be renewed after one year or whether it could be extended to other pieces in the museum's collection.
"All the artifacts in the museum belong to the Pope, only he can make a decision," Spinola told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou, editing by Tim Pearce