As part of its 500 year celebrations, the Vatican Museums yesterday inaugurated the revamped Missionary Ethnological museum after five years of extensive renovation work.

The first section which is now open to the public is dedicated to China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia and showcases some 100,000 artifacts which bear witness to the wealth of cultures and traditions worlwide and the influence that Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have exerted on the various local customs.

Special attention is drawn to the theme of inculturation the different ways in which the Christian message has been reinterpreted and proposed by indigenous cultures.

It is a sad fact that indigenous people werent treated respectfully but too often treated as inferiors by Europeans, explains the curator, Monsigneur Roberto Zagnoli. The Vatican has an important role in promoting a message of respect and tolerance for different cultures and religions. We want to highlight the richness in diversity and also that the role of the missionary is one of dialogue and not of conquest or proselytism.

In this era of globalisation, in which different civilisations are in danger of disappearing, the Missionary Ethnological museum is an essential reminder of our cultural roots, he continued.

The artifacts on display are of historical, artistic and documental value, a large part being gifts sent to the Pontiff from all over the world on the occasion of the 1925 jubilee year and from the various international missionary institutes and orders.

A copy of the Christian altar of the Chapel of the Catholic University in Beijing (with structure and decoration influenced by the Chinese tradition) and an exquisite cross with a lotus flower in its centre (the lotus flower is the symbol of life in the Chinese tradition) are both wonderful examples of intercultural influences and fusions.

Also worthy of particular mention are the collection of Kakemonos (vertical scrolls) with paintings on paper and silk dating back to 1667 (in the Japan section) and a special section on Shamanism in the Korea section. The Buddhist Thang-ka (sacred painting) on fabric decorated with pearls, corals and precious stones was a gift of the Dalai Lama to Pople John Paul II and is on display in the Tibet section. In the space reserved for Mongolia is a fascinating model of the now-destroyed Buddhist temple complex at Chaoyang (which the Emperor Kangxi ordered to be built in the 17th century), the only remaining testimonial of this structure.

The arrangement of the museum follows a geographical criterion, where the collections will be divided into four main sectors Asia, Oceania, Africa and America, divided in turn into sub-sections which will display artworks and the most widespread religious practices of individual countries.

The Asia Oceania section is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2007, the African section by 2009 and the section on the Americas by 2010.

The Missionary Ethnological Museum was founded in 1936 by Pope Pius XI (1922-1939). It was situated in the Lateran Apostolic Palace until 1963, when Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) had it transferred to the Vatican. The museum was transferred to the lower floor of the Vatican building by order of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) and opened its doors to the public in 1973.

Missionary Ethnological Museum, Viale Vaticano, tel. 0669883333. Mon-Fri 8.45-17.00 (last admittance at 15.20) and Sat 8.45-15.20 (last admittance at 13.20). The museum is open free of charge on the last Sunday of the month, 8.45-14.00 (last admittance at 12.20).