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Three fragments of Athens' Parthenon temple, kept by the Vatican for centuries, were returned to Greece on Friday in what Pope Francis has called a gesture of friendship.
"The gifting of the fragments of the Parthenon, which have been held in the Vatican Museums for more than two centuries, shows itself as an ecclesial, cultural and social gesture of friendship and solidarity with the people of Greece," Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary for promoting Christian unity, told a ceremony at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
The marble fragments from the Parthenon, one of the marvels of the ancient world, 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 the city.
The second is the head of a young boy, believed to be depicted carrying a tray of votive 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.
They had been held for centuries in the papal collection and Vatican Museums.
The Parthenon temple was built in the 5th century BCE on the Acropolis to honor Athena, the patron goddess of Athens.
It was partially destroyed during a Venetian bombardment in 1687, then looted.
Its fragments are scattered throughout many renowned museums.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Greece has been trying to recover them.
In the early 1800s, workmen stripped entire friezes from the monument on the orders of Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, known as Lord Elgin.
Elgin sold the marbles to the British government, which in 1817 passed them on to the British Museum where they remain one of its most prized exhibits.
London has long argued that the sculptures had been taken with permission from the Ottoman Turks who ruled Greece at the time, but Athens insists they were stolen.
Greeks had a "legitimate wish to have the Parthenon fragments at home in their place of origin," Farrell said Friday.
© 2023 AFP
Entire towns evacuated as climate-fueled wildfires start 'very early' in Spain
A large wildfire raging in Spain's eastern Valencia region forced more than 1,500 people to flee their homes on Friday, providing further evidence of life-threatening consequences of the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis and bolstering the case for meaningful mitigation efforts.
Since it broke out in the municipality of Villanueva de Viver on Thursday, Spain's first major wildfire of the year has destroyed more than 7,400 acres of forest, prompting evacuation orders in eight communities across the Castellón province.
As residents sought refuge in shelters run by the Red Cross and other charities, more than 500 firefighters—supported by 18 planes and helicopters—were still attempting to contain the blaze on Friday afternoon.
"While firefighters believed they were managing to control the spread of the flames, strong winds and 'practically summertime temperatures' could reactivate it," Reuters reported, citing a local official.
"Summer is getting longer, it is arriving earlier, and the availability of water and humidity in the soil is unfortunately being reduced, making us much more vulnerable."
Ximo Puig, president of the Valencia region, told reporters the fire came "very early in the spring" and was "very voracious from the beginning."
It's not yet clear what sparked the blaze, but after months of arid conditions in the region, there's no shortage of dry fuel that can act as kindling. Climate scientists have long warned that as unmitigated greenhouse gas pollution causes temperatures to rise and droughts to worsen, wildfire seasons will grow longer and the number and severity of conflagrations will increase.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said, "These fires we're seeing, especially this early in the year, are once again proof of the climate emergency that humanity is living through, which particularly affects and ravages countries such as ours."
According to Reuters, "An unusually dry winter across parts of the south of the European continent has reduced moisture in the soil and raised fears of a repeat of 2022."
Last year, wildfires destroyed nearly two million acres of land throughout Europe—more than double the annual average over the past 16 years, according to the European Commission. In Spain alone, 493 blazes wiped out more than 750,000 acres.
People in Spain, already suffering from a long-term drought marked by three years of below-average rainfall, are bracing for drier and hotter weather than usual this spring along the country's northeastern Mediterranean coast.
Experts have already started sounding the alarm about the likelihood of another catastrophic year for wildfires, especially if the frequency, duration, and intensity of heatwaves are comparable to last year, which saw records toppled.
"There is every reason to fear that this year too there will be numerous and widespread events."
"Out-of-season fires" are becoming increasingly common, Spanish Environment Minister Teresa Ribera told reporters this week. "Summer is getting longer, it is arriving earlier, and the availability of water and humidity in the soil is unfortunately being reduced, making us much more vulnerable."
Spain is far from alone. "A European Commission report this month observed a lack of rain and warmer-than-normal temperatures during the winter, raising drought warnings for southern Spain, France, Ireland, Britain, northern Italy, Greece, and parts of eastern Europe," Reuters reported. The commission "warned that low levels of water could affect strategic sectors including agriculture, hydropower, and energy production."
Lorenzo Ciccarese from the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research told the outlet that "there is every reason to fear that this year too there will be numerous and widespread events."
The United Nations warned last year that as a result of planet-heating emissions and land-use change, wildfires are projected to increase 30% by 2050 and 50% by the end of the century.
After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest assessment report this week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is possible, "but it will take a quantum leap in climate action," including a prohibition on greenlighting and financing new coal, oil, and gas projects as well as a phaseout of existing fossil fuel production.
A large asteroid will safely zoom between Earth and the Moon on Saturday, a once-in-a-decade event that will be used as a training exercise for planetary defense efforts, according to the European Space Agency.
The asteroid, named 2023 DZ2, is estimated to be 40 to 70 meters (130 to 230 feet) wide, roughly the size of the Parthenon, and big enough to wipe out a large city if it hit our planet.
At 19:49 GMT on Saturday it will come within a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, said Richard Moissl, the head of the ESA's planetary defense office.
Though that is "very close", there is nothing to worry about, he told AFP.
Small asteroids fly past every day, but one of this size coming so close to Earth only happens around once every 10 years, he added.
The asteroid will pass 175,000 kilometers (109,000 miles) from Earth at a speed of 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,400 miles per hour). The moon is roughly 385,000 kilometers away.
An observatory in La Palma, one of Spain's Canary Islands, first spotted the asteroid on February 27.
Last week, the UN-endorsed International Asteroid Warning Network decided it would take advantage of the close look, carrying out a "rapid characterization" of 2023 DZ2, Moissl said.
That means astronomers around the world will analyze the asteroid with a range of instruments such as spectrometers and radars.
The goal is to find out just how much we can learn about such an asteroid in only a week, Moissl said.
It will also serve as training for how the network "would react to a threat" possibly heading our way in the future, he added.
Moissl said preliminary data suggests 2023 DZ2 is "a scientifically interesting object", indicating it could be a somewhat unusual type of asteroid. But he added that more data was needed to determine the asteroid's composition.
The asteroid will again swing past Earth in 2026, but poses no threat of impact for at least the next 100 years -- which is how far out its trajectory has been calculated.
Earlier this month a similarly sized asteroid, 2023 DW, was briefly given a one-in-432 chance of hitting Earth on Valentine's Day 2046.
But further calculations ruled out any chance of an impact, which is what normally happens with newly discovered asteroids. Moissl said 2023 DW was now expected to miss Earth by some 4.3 million kilometers.
Even if such an asteroid was determined to be heading our way, Earth is no longer defenseless.
Last year, NASA's DART spacecraft deliberately slammed into the pyramid-sized asteroid Dimorphos, significantly knocking it off course in the first such test of our planetary defenses.
© 2023 AFP