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Jordan has asked Canada to seize the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea scrolls, on display until Sunday at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, invoking international law in a bid to keep the artifacts out of the hands of Israel until their disputed ownership is settled.

Even if Canada ignores the request, it will make other countries think twice before accepting the controversial exhibit.

Summoning the Canadian chargé d'affaires in Amman two weeks ago, Jordan cited the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which both Jordan and Canada are signatories, in asking Canada to take custody of the scrolls.

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Jordan claims Israel acted illegally in 1967 when it took the scrolls from a museum in east Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan during the Six-Day War and subsequently occupied. The Hague Convention, which is concerned with safeguarding cultural property during wartime, requires each signatory "to take into its custody cultural property imported into its territory either directly or indirectly from any occupied territory. This shall either be effected automatically upon the importation of the property or, failing this, at the request of the authorities of that territory."

This means Canada must act, says Jordan. "The Government of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan would be grateful if the Government of Canada would confirm … whether it is prepared to assume its international legal responsibility, and the means by which it intends to do so," it wrote.

While confirming that Canada has received a message from Jordan, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said yesterday that "differences regarding ownership of the Dead Sea scrolls should be addressed by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It would not be appropriate for Canada to intervene as a third party."

The ROM's exhibition of the scrolls, mounted "in partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority," opened on June 27.

While Jordan has acted only recently in asking Canada to take custody of the scrolls, the Palestinian Authority has made its position known since April, when Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper concerning what it argues is the illegal use of the scrolls.

Jordanian and Palestinian officials insist they do not want Canada to determine who owns the scrolls, but simply to place them under Canada's safekeeping until their ownership is determined.

The ancient Hebrew scrolls were part of one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th century. Discovered in 1947 by Bedouin Arabs living in the area northwest of the Dead Sea, the first seven scrolls found their way into Israeli hands and became a prize exhibit of the new Israeli state's national museum.

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The majority of the Dead Sea scrolls, however, were uncovered in the seven years following the initial discovery in an operation supervised by Jordan on land it occupied west of the Jordan River. The scrolls, many consisting of thousands of fragments, were taken to the Palestinian museum in east Jerusalem for study.

While neither the Jordanian nor the Israeli museum talked to the other, scholars in both camps believed the scrolls were the library of an ascetic Jewish sect called the Essenes, described by first-century historian Josephus as living in the Qumran area. The scrolls had been hidden in caves, it was believed, to hide them from the Romans.

Having received a formal request to take custody of the scrolls, Canada appears to be under some obligation to take action.

The Cultural Property Export and Import Act, Canada's own legislation to enact the Hague Convention, states: "If the government of a State Party submits a request in writing to the Minister for the recovery and return of any cultural property that has been exported from an occupied territory of that State Party and that is in Canada in the possession of or under the control of any person, institution or public authority, the Attorney-General of Canada may institute an action in the Federal Court or in a superior court of a province for the recovery of the property by the State Party."

It adds that in the event that the Attorney-General institutes legal action to recover such property, "The court may … order that the property in respect of which the action has been taken be turned over to the Minister for safe-keeping and conservation pending final disposition of the action."

From the start, Israel has argued it is not asserting its ownership of the scrolls. "We are the custodians of the Dead Sea scrolls," says Pnina Shor, head of the conservation department at the Israel Antiquities Authority. "As such, we have a right to exhibit them and to conserve them."

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Israel argues that the short-term, temporary exhibition of scrolls in another country does not constitute "exportation" under the Hague Convention, and that all the scrolls in its possession are part of Jewish heritage.

Palestinian experts acknowledge the scrolls are Jewish, but argue that they are also part of Palestinian heritage just as ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins comprise part of their history.

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