Christopher Hitchens tells Christina Borg why the marbles must be returned to Athens

Two weeks ago, at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, due to open early next year, the Presidents of Italy and Greece took part in an historic ceremony (right) that could have major repercussions for Britain. The Italians were handing back to the Greeks a fragment of marble sculpture taken from the Parthenon 200 years ago. The fragment portrays, in exquisite detail, the draped lower leg and foot of a seated goddess, probably Artemis.

It had been removed by the notorious Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which was occupying Greece at the time. Elgin gave the fragment to the British Consul-General of Sicily and it ended up in the Salinas Museum in Palermo.

Elgin took the bulk of the sculptures back to London where they have been in the British Museum since 1816. Greece has demanded the return of the so-called 'Elgin marbles' ever since, but to no avail. Now the question is very simple: if the Italians can be magnanimous and give back a treasure that is rightfully the Greeks', why cannot the British follow suit?

While the British Government and the British Museum have constantly prevaricated, the British people - as judged by opinion polls down the years - have felt more relaxed about giving the Elgin marbles back to Greece. One argument British officialdom has constantly used against returning the marbles has been Greece's reported inability to care for its antiquities. But the opening in 2009 of the New Acropolis Museum whose innovative design, the work of Swiss-born architect Bernard Tschumi, offers a sweeping 360-degree view of the Acropolis, surely puts an end to such criticism.

In a Times article dated August 27, the museum was described as "one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces in modern architecture". Eleni Cubitt secretary of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles ­ a campaigning body set up in 1983 as a response to Melina Mercouri's appeal for the marbles' repatriation - endorses this view. "The Parthenon Sculptures deserve to be housed in the New Acropolis Museum," she says. "Currently they are a fragmented piece of art, yet as one significant piece, visitors will be able to see the whole as it ought to be seen, in context, at the foot of the Acropolis itself."

Echoing these sentiments is the writer Christopher Hitchens, who earlier this year re-published his 1987 polemic, The Elgin Marbles, now retitled The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification. Hitchens insists the Greeks have "a natural right" to the sculptures, and that they belong on the hill of the Acropolis - "in that light, in that air. Pentelic marble does not occur in the UK."

So why hasn't this been evident to the British authorities? Hitchens says: "Partly, that is to do with Greece's geography in that for a long time it wasn't a stable country: repeated wars, occupations, demolitions, and so on, in which the temples suffered terribly."

Hitchens's interest in the marbles began about 25 years ago when he read an essay by Colin Macinnes, author of the 1950s novel Absolute Beginners. "He'd taken an interest in the Parthenon Marbles early on when no one was bothering with it and I read his essay and thought 'Shit, I didn't know all that. I didn't know.' I was predisposed to be a philhellene by my education and by making friends with a lot of Greeks during the time of the dictatorship. Who isn't impressed by what they find out about 5th century Athens?

"But the congealing, catalysing effect was this essay and around that time Melina Mercouri [the former actress and singer] became the Greek Minister of Culture and the subject got revived."

Hitchens wrote his first article on the subject for the Spectator in 1983. "The thing that struck me the most and still does was that though my article had taken one-by-one all the arguments for retention and said this is why these arguments that are well known are actually very bogus, people wrote to me as if I had not mentioned them. "And I thought - this is very odd that people should be so blind, I mean I've just said why that's a crap argument... and they write to me and say - 'What about if all museums had to give back all their stuff!' This was a wildly dogmatic, radical position: irrational, unexamined, intolerant and they wouldn't give you credit for having tried to deal with their case in advance.

"And so I thought, right, that means I'm onto something. It certainly means we will win the argument because people on the other side aren't trying to argue, all they're saying is 'Ya, ya, ya, ya, we've got them and you can't make us take them back!'"

Twenty-five years on, however, the argument is still not won, and there remain those who argue that if Lord Elgin hadn't removed the marbles, they'd have been destroyed or lost. And so, they argue, he did the right thing. Hitchens still maintains Elgin had no right to take them and the British should be impelled to return them. "We can't live with this embarrassment." And he's surprised the Greeks aren't ruder about it.

"Even if they say 'Thank you, you rescued our property from the fire next door, you looked after it while our house burnt down, the fire was our fault'... that doesn't mean we own the stuff. You wouldn't put up with anyone saying 'Oh well, yeah, thanks I guess I did look after it - in fact it's mine now.'"

When Mercouri died in 1994, Hitchens was one of those who walked in her funeral cortege. He still feels sad Mercouri didn't live to see the marbles returned - but sadder still that her husband, filmmaker Jules Dassin, died in March this year before he could see the official opening of the New Acropolis Museum. "That was a feasible desire. We - he and I - could've been there."

Hitchens is adamant that the campaign that Mercouri began will never be abandoned. "As Rabbi Hillel the great Babylonian Rabbi said, 'You may not ever see the victory of the justice but you have no right to abandon the struggle for it.'" He likes to imagine the day the marbles are returned: "Here's the day: the day's come, British PM arrives, the ship arrives at Piraeus, the ceremony's begun, there are fireworks... Who can think about that and not want it to happen?"

In June 2009, Chrstopher Hitchens visited the Acropolis Museum and wrote an article for Vanity Fair.