Churches targetted by thieves

CRIMINALS are stealing artefacts from East Anglian churches for a thriving black market in Europe.Church insurance experts have revealed there is a ready market across the channel for the artefacts, with Jacobean chairs and large oak chests proving particularly popular with the criminal fraternity.

CRIMINALS are stealing artefacts from East Anglian churches for a thriving black market in Europe.

Church insurance experts have revealed there is a ready market across the channel for the artefacts, with Jacobean chairs and large oak chests proving particularly popular with the criminal fraternity.

In previous years plundered church goods were ending up on an international black market stretching from Japan to South America.

Ecclesiastical Insurance, which insures 92% of all Church of England property, has just released figures showing claims submitted nationwide last year were in excess of £4 million for theft, malicious damage and arson – up about £760,000 on 2001.

But despite this insurers do not recommend churches lock their doors, which remain peaceful havens for many calling in to pray or meditate.

Maggie Vinson, spokeswoman for Ecclesiastical Insurance, said: "Antiques are stolen to order and there is a ready market in Europe. It's worse than the days of Oliver Cromwell the way some churches are plundered.

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"Churches used to be places of tranquillity, sacrosanct and even the worst criminals would not dream of targeting them.

"There is no respect for anything any more, but we do not advocate churches close their doors, that's up to individual churches.''

Nick Clarke, spokesman for the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese, said they were upset at having a series of Suffolk churches broken in to last year, but did keep valuables locked away during the week.

He said: "It is always distressing when churches are targeted like this, but for us a church has got to be open if it is a church and for many parish churches it is far more important to be open during daylight hours because of the opportunities that gives to communities for a quiet space.''

The statistics come after a prolific burglar who raided 517 churches across England and Wales, including 32 in Suffolk, was jailed for four years in January for stealing from safes and charity boxes.

Christopher Coulthard, 40, from Bedworth, Warwickshire, had £2,450 in cash when he was eventually caught and drove a £1,900 car bought with the proceeds of his crimes.

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