A tourist from New York who took an ancient stone fragment from an excavation near Jerusalem's Temple Mount as a religious souvenir 12 years ago has returned the artifact after suffering from a guilty conscience, the Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday. The 21-kilogram fragment of a marble column, which disappeared from an excavation south of the Temple Mount in 1997, arrived back in Jerusalem this week in a specially constructed wooden crate from the US, along with a letter of apology, the state-run archeological body said. The sender recounted that he had received the stone artifact from his Israeli tour guide on the last day of an organized trip to the Holy Land, after having voiced interest in purchasing a stone from the Temple Mount-area excavation in order to pray for Jerusalem. The tourist, an archeology student at the time, wrote in his letter that he had later realized that the guide had taken the artifact from the excavation without permission, even though he had said it was a "present." "For the past 12 years since then, 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," the tourist wrote. "I am asking for your forgiveness." The package was returned to Jerusalem after a New York clergyman unexpectedly contacted the Antiquities Authority by e-mail several weeks ago with a plea for forgiveness on behalf of a member of his congregation. "The fellow confessed to me that 12 years ago he took a stone from Jerusalem, and his conscience has bothered him ever since," the clergyman wrote. "I wish to return the stone to Israel, and hope that you will forgive the man for his transgression." The names of the people involved in the incident have not been released. The artifact in question is a column fragment discovered during the excavation of one of the Umayyad buildings south of the Temple Mount, and is similar to others on display in the archeological garden near the holy site, said Yuval Baruch, Jerusalem regional archeologist of the Antiquities Authority. The columns were probably the official palace complex of the Umayyad caliphs about 1,200 years ago, he said. The archeological body's unit for the prevention of antiquities robbery said Tuesday that no legal measures would be taken against the people involved in the incident due to the "unique sincerity" of the apology, and the fact that the item was ultimately returned. Archeological theft is a criminal offense punishable by law with imprisonment, although most offenders receive less severe sentences. About 300 archeology thefts are detected each year in Israel. The antiquities trade on the country's black market is estimated to run in the millions of dollars annually.

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