In a ruling it delivered on Friday, Sanming intermediate people's court ordered a Dutch architect who is in possession of a 1,000-year-old Buddha statue containing the mummified remains of a famous monk to return it to China within 30 days.
Zhanggong Zushi was a Fujian monk of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), who was revered for healing the sick. When he died at the age of 37, his body was mummified and encased in the statue, which was collectively owned by Yangchun and Dongpu villages.
The statue was stolen from a temple in Yangchun in 1995.
The Chinese Civil Procedure Law stipulates that a litigant without a residence in the country is allowed to appeal to a higher court within 30 days. If he or she does not appeal, the ruling will become effective.
According to the court, lawyers of both sides were present at the hearing. But whether the defendant Oscar van Overeem will appeal is not yet known.
There is no doubt that the statue is the property of the villages, that the case falls under Chinese law and that bona fide protection－meaning the owner did not know that the item was claimed by someone else－does not apply to stolen cultural relics, so the villages have the right to demand its return.
As the court said, the statue is the key to religious life in the villages and it should be returned to its hometown and kept by local people, and as a historical cultural relic, its ownership must also be protected by laws.
Van Overeem claims that there could have been a mistake in identifying the statue and the one in his possession might not be the one that was stolen from Yangchun. However, he has previously said that he is willing to return the relic to China for "reasonable compensation".
While it is right to recover the statue, the cultural heritage protection and public security departments in Sanming and beyond should also act to bring the cultural relic thieves and illegal dealers to justice.