Churches fall victim to rising wave of drug-driven thefts

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Britain's churches are falling victim to a new wave of drug crime which has led to a record number of thefts.

Britain's churches are falling victim to a new wave of drug crime which has led to a record number of thefts.

The latest figures from National Churchwatch, which tackles crime against churches, show there were more than 5,000 reported thefts in 2001. This figure has been rising steadily and contrasts with only 42 reported thefts from museums in the same year.

Figures from Ecclesiastical Insurance, which covers more than 14,000 churches, show theft claims exceeded £1.4m last year, a figure expected to rise this year.

Police say churches are being hit by people financing drug habits. In one case a drug dealer was arrested after an antique chair he first claimed was a family heirloom was found to have a church security mark on the base.

Heritage campaigners want the Government to form a special police force to combat ecclesiastical theft.

In Hampshire alone, there have been 143 burglaries over the past three months with churches affected in Andover, Basingstoke and the New Forest. Police believe 33 of the raids were by one gang. There have also been similar raids in Wiltshire and Somerset.

Thousands of churches now use glued microdots on furniture coded with a PIN number and readable by ultra-violet scanners.

Church antiques are valuable; a painting worth £60,000 was taken from a church in Box, Wiltshire. But Nick Tolson, who runs National Churchwatch, said churchwardens often did not know the value of church relics.

Two years ago, a valuable replica of an Anglo-Saxon treasure called the Alfred Jewel, a piece of rock crystal set in gold and enamel, was stolen from the Church of St Mary the Virgin, in North Petherton, in Somerset.

The jewel was not recovered but Asprey's, the jewellers, made a replacement.Now CCTV cameras scan the goings-on at St Mary's and volunteers sit in the church. "People used to think the eye of God was watching them, but that is no longer the case," said the Reverend Sue Rose.