Petros Giannakouris, Associated Press
A group of pagans raises their hands during a prayer among the Acropolis temples in Athens Sunday. They object to the removal of sculptural masterpieces.

ATHENS, Greece — Practitioners of the ancient Greek religion gathered among the ruined temples at the Acropolis Sunday, praying to Athena to stop the removal of sculptures and pieces of the temples to museums.

Participants claimed it was the first such gathering since the ancient religion was officially abolished late in the 4th century.

"We believe that the structural elements of a temple should not be moved and we worry about the consequences," said high priestess Doretta Peppa.

Peppa's Athens-based group — called Ellinais, an acronym in Greek for "Sacred Society of Greek Ancient Religionists" — is campaigning to revive the ancient religion. The group has defied Culture Ministry bans on holding prayers at several ancient temples.

On Sunday, about 200 people, by Peppa's estimate, prayed to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and patron of ancient Athens, to protect the 2,500-year-old site and spare the city from harm.

"Is it a coincidence that rain started falling when the ceremony started and ended at the same time as the ceremony? I think not," Peppa said.

Police made no effort to disrupt the 20-minute convocation.

Last year, the government moved hundreds of sculptures from a tiny museum on the Acropolis to a euro129 million (US$190 million) new museum below the citadel. In a statement, Ellinais described the new glass and concrete structure as "an incredible architectural monstrosity that insults (Greece's) cultural heritage."

The building is where Greece hopes one day to display the Elgin Marbles alongside the other Parthenon sculptures. The Elgin Marbles were removed from the Parthenon temple by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin in the 19th century. The British Museum has rejected Greek calls to return them.

Greek officials have said the new museum will open next month, displaying some 4,000 artifacts.

Polytheists like Peppa believe that monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam have as their god an authority figure who is too remote from humanity and nature.

Orthodox Christianity is the official religion of Greece. Peppa said officials have harassed believers in the Olympian gods.

"People have had difficulties with their jobs," she said.

Christianity took hold in Greece in the 4th century. Roman Emperor Theodosius wiped out the last vestige of the Olympian gods when he abolished the Olympic Games in 394 A.D.

The Parthenon, built between 447-432 B.C. at the Acropolis as a temple to Athena, was converted into a Christian church in the 5th century A.D. It became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1456 and is now a museum.

"This was the first prayer ceremony on the Acropolis since Parthenon was converted into a church," Peppa said.