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Westminster Abbey agrees ‘in principle’ to return sacred tablet to Ethiopia

<span>Ethiopian priests at a religious festival carrying covered tabots on their heads.</span><span>Photograph: Age Fotostock/Alamy</span>
Ethiopian priests at a religious festival carrying covered tabots on their heads.Photograph: Age Fotostock/Alamy

Westminster Abbey has agreed “in principle” to returning a sacred tablet to the Ethiopian Orthodox church, igniting a debate around restitution claims made by the East African nation.

The tabot – a blackened flat piece of wood featuring a carved inscription that symbolically represents the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments – has been at the Abbey since British forces returned with it from the Battle of Maqdala, where it was looted in 1868.

As first reported in the Art Newspaper, the tabot could now begin its journey back to the country it was taken from 156 years ago. “The Dean and Chapter has decided in principle that it would be appropriate to return the Ethiopian tabot to the Ethiopian church,” a spokesperson for Westminster Abbey said.

“We are currently considering the best way to achieve this, and we are in ongoing discussions with representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church. This is a complex matter, and it may take some time.”

Westminster Abbey is directly under the monarch’s jurisdiction, which means that King Charles (the supreme governor of the Church of England) may have to give the tabot’s return his blessing.

Westminster Abbey did not confirm what triggered the change of position, but there has been growing pressure on all European institutions that hold items taken during the colonial era. Several of the Benin bronzes, which were looted by British forces in 1897 from what is now Nigeria, have been returned by British institutions after decades of campaigning.

The move by Westminster Abbey will put pressure on the British Museum, which has 11 tabots in its collection that are not on display and are available to be visited by Ethiopian Orthodox priests.

A British Museum spokesperson said: “The British Museum’s collection tells the story of human cultural achievement over 2 million years. The presence of the tabots in the collection, together with other objects from Ethiopia, demonstrate the breadth and diversity of religious traditions in Ethiopia, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism as well as other faiths.”

Related: Why we should send the tabots back to Ethiopia | Richard Brooks

The museum’s long-held position on the items is to eventually lend them to an Ethiopian Orthodox church in the UK “where they can be cared for by the clergy within their traditions”.

But that ambition has been questioned by Ethiopian clergy who say lending the items to British churches is highly unlikely because of the high cost of insuring ancient artefacts.

Rev Gebre Georgis Dimtsu, of the Debre Bisrat St Gabriel church in east London, told the Guardian there was no way his church could afford to host a tabot and he believed they should return – permanently – to Ethiopia. “They should go back to where they belong and to where people have been worshipping for a long time,” said Dimtsu.

There have been successful returns of tabots held in British institutions. One was sent back to Ethiopia soon after it was discovered in a church cupboard in Edinburgh 23 years ago.

When the artefact landed back in the country, which has been petitioning for the return of its tabots for decades, a public holiday was declared and thousands of people lined the streets of Addis Ababa to witness its return.