By Philip Pullella
VATICANCITY (Reuters) – Thirty-seven years after the Falklands war, a tiny statue of the Madonna taken at the end of the conflict and held in Britain ever since is going home to Argentina in a gesture of reconciliation blessed by Pope Francis.
Francis, who is Argentine, presided over the handover on Wednesday as Britain’s top Roman Catholic military chaplain, Bishop Paul Mason, returned the 35-cm (14-inch) statue to his Argentine counterpart, Bishop Santiago Olivera.
Argentine soldiers took the statue of Our Lady of Lujan, one of their country’s most revered icons, with them for divine protection when they invaded the islands, which Buenos Aires calls the Malvinas, on April 2, 1982.
That statue was a copy of the 1630 original, which is in the cathedral of Lujan.
After the Argentine rout at the end of a two-month conflict, a Catholic Church official responsible for the Falklands gave it to the Catholic military chaplain who had arrived with the British forces.
The statue was then taken to Britain and found a home in the Catholic Military Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Aldershot, in southern England.
The statue that was in Britain will return to Argentina and a replica will go to the British cathedral in Aldershot.
Olivera had asked for its return because people in the area of Argentina where it was venerated before the war wanted to be able to pray before it again.
“I immediately realised what a good opportunity it was, not only to return the statue, but also to demonstrate a united faith across two countries that have experienced political division,” Mason said.
Some 255 British troops and about 650 Argentine soldiers were killed in the two-month conflict.
During the handover in St. Peter’s Square at the end his weekly general audience, Francis also blessed and kissed a gravestone for the tomb of an unknown Argentine soldier.
Argentina still claims the windswept South Atlantic archipelago, which has a population of about 4,000.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alison Williams)