Send back sacred Ethiopian tablets as a matter of faith, ex-archbishop tells British Museum

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Lord Carey of Clifton, former archbishop of Canterbury - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph
Lord Carey of Clifton, former archbishop of Canterbury - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

The British Museum must hand back sacred texts as a “matter of faith”, a former archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Campaigners have formally requested that the museum’s trustees exploit a legal loophole to repatriate the Ethiopian Tabots, Christian altar tablets considered so holy that they cannot be viewed by curators or displayed for the public.

Lord Carey of Clifton, who was archbishop between 1991 and 2002, has backed calls for the British Museum to return the tabots to Ethiopia for the benefit of Christian worshippers, in a repatriation row over the religious treasures.

“It is shameful and distressing that the British Museum so far has been resistant to the appeal for the return of the tabots,” he told The Telegraph.

“In the spirit of goodwill and decency, we ask for a conversation with the British Museum to take this forward. The issue is very much one of faith. It is cruel to deprive believers of access to faith and tabots are essential to Ethiopian worship.”

The Scheherazade Foundation, a cultural charity, has formally requested that the museum return the tabots, which were taken by British forces after the Battle of Magdala in 1868.

The Foundation – with the approval of the Ethiopian authorities – and its legal advisers in London have argued that museum trustees can avoid the normal legislative barriers preventing them from giving away objects in the collection, by declaring the sacred tabots “useless”.

Ethiopian Tabots - J Countess/Getty Images
Ethiopian Tabots - J Countess/Getty Images

The British Museum Act 1963 stops treasures being given away, unless in very specific circumstances, such as when they are “unfit to be retained”. It has been argued by Samantha Knights, a commercial litigation lawyer at Matrix Chambers, that this clause applies to the tabots.

The 11 tabots held in the British Museum are unlike other objects in their collection, as even curators respect the Ethiopian Orthodox belief that they should not be seen by laymen, and keep them out of sight in a sealed room. Lawyers have argued that this makes them unfit to be retained for the Museum's educational purposes.

Lord Carey has backed this argument, adding that “anything legal should be considered” in the campaign to have the tabots returned to Ethiopia.

Lord Boateng, the Labour peer, has taken up the cause in the House of Lords. He told The Telegraph: “Intellectually and morally indefensible. The continuing retention of the Ethiopian Tabots is an affront to people of faith everywhere.

“The British Museum in displaying this degree of spiritual and cultural disregard for the sensibilities of peoples of other races and creeds undermines its own claim to be a trusted depository of global history.”

Benin Bronzes British Museum - Marc Zakian/Alamy Stock Photo
Benin Bronzes British Museum - Marc Zakian/Alamy Stock Photo

Ethiopia has previously met with the leadership of the British Museum to discuss its repatriation claim, one of a growing number submitted to the London institution, including Nigeria’s demand that the Benin Bronzes be returned.

Following the decision to return the Benin Bronzes, which was signed off by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the Horniman Museum in south London, the Scheherazade Foundation has urged the British Museum to “be on the right side of history” and take similar action.

The foundation’s letter to the board of trustees stated: “Future generations will judge today’s museums on how they responded to the repatriation debate, possibly quite harshly.

“The British Museum, and yourself as chair of the trustees, have a singular yet rapidly diminishing window of opportunity to be on the right side of history on this issue.”

A British Museum spokesman said: “The tabots are cared for within the British Museum as part of a wider collection from Maqdala.

“The British Museum recognises the significance of the tabots and has held meaningful talks with the Ethiopian Church to try and successfully navigate these sensitive issues. The museum’s sustained ambition is to lend these objects to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Great Britain where they can be cared for by the clergy within their traditions.

“The willingness to engage in further discussions remains and a fresh opportunity to discuss this possibility with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church would be welcome.”