A Chinese Buddha statue with the mummified body of a Buddhist monk inside is on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest, Hungary on March 3, 2015. (Xinhua/Attila Volgyi)
A group of Chinese villagers has hired a team of top lawyers to sue a Dutch collector after he refused to return a mummified Buddha statue believed to have been stolen 20 years ago.
Representatives from Yangchun Village, Datian County in southeast China's Fujian Province, have signed an agreement with seven lawyers to bring the case to Dutch court.
The village has gone through official and private channels to negotiate with the Dutch collector for the return of the statue, which was worshipped as a god in the village temple for around 1,000 years, Lin Wenqing, Party chief of Yangchun village, said.
The collector first responded by saying he was willing to cede the relic "if it is proven to have belonged to a Buddhist community that still exists," but later changed positions and rejected negotiations.
The statue is of a Buddha named Zhanggong Zushi, a local man who became a monk in his 20s and won fame for helping people treat disease and spreading Buddhist belief.
When he died at the age of 37, his body was mummified and placed in the statue during China's Song Dynasty (960-1279). The statue was worshipped in the village temple ever since.
It was displayed at a "Mummy World" exhibition at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, which opened in October last year. It was originally scheduled to be on display until May 17, but was pulled from the exhibition following allegations it was stolen.
In the temple, local people still display the statue's hat and clothes left behind after it disappeared.
Leading the group of lawyers is Liu Yang, who earned a reputation for successfully leading a Chinese legal team in recovering relics looted from the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan), which was burned down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
Liu said lawyers have finished collecting evidence on the case and will bring it to court by the end of this year.
He said he is optimistic as there are "no evident flaws or obstacles" in arguing the statue was stolen from the village temple. It is also important the court knows the village has a deep spiritual connection with the statue and a sense of urgency in reclaiming it.
The Dutch collector claims he obtained the item in 1996. According to Dutch law, the time frame for civil litigation is 20 years.
"The validity period for recovering the relic is going to expire next year. So we have pressure to complete the legal work quickly," Liu said.
He will fly to the Netherlands to work with a Dutch counterpart for the case in December.
Hundreds of residents from Datian County wrote a letter to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in March, pleading for return of the Buddha. The letter was handed to European-Chinese groups in the Netherlands, which delivered it via the Chinese embassy.
"We believe this is the Buddha we have been searching for over the past 20 years and we look forward to its return," the letter said in both Chinese and English.