ATHENS, Greece (CNN) — Defying police presence and a thunderous downpour, dozens of Greek pagans huddled near the Parthenon in Athens on Sunday, holding a protest prayer for a museum being built at the foot of the sacred site.
The ceremony, attended by scores of curious onlookers, was performed amid the ruins of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon. The ancient Greek religion was outlawed by the Roman empire in the fourth century.
Dressed in crisp white apparel, the pagans gathered before the east wing of the temple’s imposing Corinthian columns and prayed to Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, asking her to protect the Parthenon from further destruction.
“Oh, goddess,” roared high priestess Doretta Peppa, her hands extending over an offering of water and olive oil. “We are ready to defend your grounds.
“[But] we ask of you to protect this site, this city and its civilization, and to rid it of all evils such as the deconstruction of the Acropolis.”
The Greek Culture Ministry forbids ceremonies of any sort at archeological sites. But in January, the pagan revivalists used a second century temple of Zeus in Athens to stage the first known ceremony of its kind in 1,600 years.
Four other ceremonies have been held in unfenced sites. On Sunday, the tiny band of pagans managed to enter the Acropolis’ heavily guarded grounds, paying an entrance fee as tourists and later convincing site guards of their innocuous cause.
The 15-minute midday rite was organized by Ellinais, an Athens-based group that recently won a court battle for state recognition of the ancient religion. The group is now demanding that the government allow it to perform weddings and other rites.
On Sunday, the group’s Parthenon ritual cast a new thunderbolt at its government opponents and the designs to build a controversial museum at the foot of the Acropolis.
Followers of Ellinais object to the recent removal of marble pediments from the Parthenon and hundreds of masterpieces from a tiny museum on the Acropolis to re-house within the sprawling gallery beneath the ancient citadel.
“The new museum,” Peppa said, “is a monumental eyesore, an architectural monstrosity within the most traditional and archeologically-rich part of Athens. It is an insult to our heritage, and if we start deconstructing our monuments for the sake of filling up a museum, then what will we be left with?”
Due to open early next year, the $190 million New Acropolis Museum is being constructed after years of delays and fierce criticism over its location, hulking size and incongruous style on the fringe of Athens’ old district of Plaka.
Even before the first brick was laid, the museum had to respond to more than 100 lawsuits, including over whether sculptures could be moved without putting them at risk.
Still, defenders of the project, designed by flamboyant Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi, argue that it is too important to let anything get in the way.
Government officials expect the new museum to draw triple the number of visitors to the Acropolis to more than 3.5 million.
More important, Greece hopes the museum will bolster its chances of displaying the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century and currently housed in the British Museum in London.
The British Museum has repeatedly refused Greek requests to return the marble masterpieces, but a space will await them in the top floor of the New Acropolis Museum gallery.
Even so, Ellinais followers fear that draft legislation being prepared for the Museum’s administration and operation may challenge Greeks’ ownership of their most prized national treasures.
“If this museum is going to be run by a private entity, then who will own the collections inside it?” asked Peppa, a leading member of Ellinais.
The government rejects the allegations. “There is no question of ownership rights,” a senior Culture Ministry official said on condition of anonymity Sunday.
“These are rights safeguarded by the Greek constitution. This museum,” he said, “will happen because it does make the argument for the [Elgin] marbles’ return home.”