First an e-mail arrived. Then a 21-kilogram marble fragment arrived in a specially-made wooden crate along with a letter of apology, solving a 12-year-old mystery - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
The piece of marble, originally from a palace column, had disappeared without trace in 1997 from one of the excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) was conducting in Jerusalem south of the Temple Mount, known in Arabic as the Haram a-Sharif.
Several weeks ago, the authority received the unexpected e-mail from a cleric in New York state, asking forgiveness for a member of his congregation for taking the stone.
"The fellow confessed to me that 12 years ago he took a stone from Jerusalem and his conscience has bothered him ever since," wrote the cleric, whose denomination was not stated by the antiquities authority. "I wish to return the stone to Israel and hope that you will forgive the man for his transgression."
According to a press release from the IAA the stone arrived in Jerusalem at the beginning of June 2009.
The unnamed New York resident wrote in his letter of apology that accompanied the marble fragment that he had come to Israel on an organized trip. As a student of archaeology he said he had been very excited by the excavations south of the Temple Mount.
He had wanted to buy a stone from the excavation with which to pray for Jerusalem but was told it was not possible. On the last day of the trip, he wrote, his Israeli tour guide gave him the stone fragment as a gift.
"I was very happy and took the stone with me on my flight back to New York," the man wrote. "Only later did I realise that he probably took the stone from the excavation without permission. For the past 12 years, rather than remind me of the prayer for Jerusalem, I am reminded of the mistake I made when I removed the stone from its proper place in Israel. I am asking for your forgiveness."
The column fragment is from an Umayyad building which was probably a part the official palace complex of the caliphs some 1200 years ago, according to Yuval Baruch, the IAA's Jerusalem district archaeologist who directed the excavation.
The stone will be returned to the archaeological garden that has been built at the excavation site.
Though taking artefacts from antiquities site constitutes a severe criminal offence and is punishable with imprisonment, the IAA said in a statement it would not prosecute the repentant New Yorker.
"Because of the unique case of sincerity and the fact that the item was ultimately returned, we decided not to take any legal steps against the people who were involved in the incident," said Shay Bar Tura, director of the IAA's Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]