Israel pressed to return stolen sculptures.
On July 7, 1987, Israeli Antiques and Ruins officials (escorted by soldiers and border security staff) raided the village of Sabastiya, imposed a curfew and stole three sculptures from a set of five.
The five sculptures tell the story of Prophet Yahya, know as John the Baptist, including the story of his beheading.
Speaking to Gulf News, Mohammad Azem, Mayor of Sabastiya, said that the Israeli operation targeted the entire set of five sculptures but two were huge and could not be moved out of the small entrance of Prophet Yahya's tomb.
"The residents of Sabastiya, including the labourers and traders who go to Israel, have been looking for the three stolen sculptures since the Israelis stole them. They have learnt that the Israelis moved the sculptures to the Rockfeller Museum in Occupied Jerusalem," he said.
"The sculptures are the property of Sabastiya and must be returned. We will not rest till they are returned to their natural place at the tomb," he said.
The PNA has raised the issue of the sculptures with Israeli officials who have refused to discuss the matter or admit the theft.
"Sabastiya is a village with outstanding universal value and was a part of a tentative PNA list of 20 cultural and natural heritage sites in Palestine for inclusion on the World Heritage List," the Mayor said.
"Once Sabastiya is on the list, the PNA will lodge a complaint with Unesco officially," the Mayor stated.
"We have spoken to Unesco and other international organisations about the Israeli theft and we received solid promises from Unesco officials that they would formally discuss this issue with the Israelis," he concluded.
Khalid Bizari, a senior official at the Palestinian Ministry of Antiques and Ruins, told Gulf News that Sabastiya is known for its ruins and antiques including the Basilica, Forum, Theatre, Hellenistic Defensive Tower, Temple of Augustus, Columned Street, City Wall and Gates, Greek Monastery Church, Stadium, Crusader Cathedral, Dome Tomb and the Small Chapel. Some of these have been targets for Israeli thefts.
The most notable theft, however, was that of the three sculptures.
He said that the current structure acknowledging Prophet Yahya was rebuilt by Crusaders in the 1160s over the older Byzantine church.
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