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World News

Museum of the Bible returns 5,000 artifacts to Egypt after being accused of obtaining them illegally

by Will Maule

The Museum of the Bible has been forced to return approximately 5,000 ancient artefacts to Egypt after evidence surfaced indicating they had been acquired illegally. 

The massive handover of items - which include manuscript fragments, funeral masks, parts of coffins and the heads of statues - was undertaken following years of talks between the Museum of the Bible and the Egyptian authorities. Christian business owner and chair of the museum's board, Steve Green - who is the president of retail company 'Hobby Lobby' - said that talks had been "cordial".

"We transferred control of the fine art storage facility that housed the 5,000 Egyptian items to the US government as part of a voluntary administrative process," he said in a statement. 

"We understand the US government has now delivered the papyri to Egyptian officials."

The massive handover stemmed from a federal lawsuit filed against Hobby Lobby which stipulated that the company had imported hundreds of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae into the United States via the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, despite being warned that they were likely looted from archaeological sites. These items were then displayed in the Museum of the Bible. 

The case was resolved after Hobby Lobby consented to the forfeiture of the items and agreed to pay a $3 million fine.

Last year, Oxford University professor Dr Dirk Obbink was arrested after being accused of stealing ancient Bible fragments from a university library and selling them to the museum. The precious texts included extracts from parts of Genesis, Exodus and Romans. Obbink has protested his innocence, insisting that the accusations were a "malicious attempt” to destroy his career. The museum said they acquired the items "in good faith".

The Museum of the Bible has been hit with a number of setbacks since opening in November 2017, including the display of a number of Dead Sea Scrolls fragments which turned out to be inauthentic. 

Along with its Egypt shipment, the museum has also been forced to return items to Iraq. At the end of January, Green announced that the museum was returning 8,106 disputed clay objects to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad under the supervision of the US government after talks with Iraqi and Egyptian officials broke down. 

"We appreciate the assistance and professionalism of the U.S. government officials in helping with the logistics of these repatriations," Green wrote. "Going forward, we will continue to look for ways to partner with The Iraq Museum, The Coptic Museum, and other institutions, to provide assistance with preserving and celebrating the rich cultural histories of those countries and many others." 

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