Nuns go on the run with priceless church icons

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An order of Carmelite nuns is at the centre of a legal row over priceless religious icons which were taken when the sisters moved out of their nunnery.

When the sisters decided to leave their rundown, insect-infested nunnery, they surprised locals by taking more than just the furniture. But when residents of Grajal de Campos, in León, northern Spain, realised two large wooden religious icons had disappeared, an accusatory finger was pointed at the nuns.

The 17th-century Inmaculada and the 18th-century San José, which formed part of an altarpiece, and the 16th-century Cristo yacente, which was in a glass urn, disappeared when the nuns moved on six months ago. Their absence meant the neighbouring Brotherhood of the Third Order of San Francisco in Grajal de Campos could not take part in the Easter parades on Good Friday for the first time in 500 years as they carry the icons through the streets. Now the brotherhood has launched a legal fight to get the icons back.

The nuns come from a largely silent Carmelite order. But voices have already been raised among angry locals, anxious to retrieve the icons.

Two hundred protesters also took the fight to the doors of the nuns' new home in the more salubrious confines of Toledo.

The protesters shouted "Mother superior, pillager" and "Trust the termites more than the Carmelites" - a reference to the excuse used by the nuns as they claimed their building was run down and insect-infested. Francisco Espinosa, mayor of Grajal de Campos, said: "We've tried asking them nicely to return the icons, but they say that they've looked after them for years in the convent, and they believe that gives them the right to take them.

"We have documents from as far back as 1728 that show that they have been here much longer than the nuns, who arrived in 1881." Monsignor Julián López, the Bishop of León, wrote to the order suggesting that they "didn't keep anything that didn't belong to them" but it was ignored.

Julián Rodríguez, spokesman for the Brotherhood of the Third Order, said: "We suspect they have taken more than the icons - valuable furniture and other things. We have been forced to resort to legal action against the sisters." Rumours have arisen that the nuns left their nunnery because they want to sell the dilapidated building in an effort to cash in on Spain's building boom.

One resident, who was at the protest, said: "Now we know that they want to sell the convent to make way for a hotel. That's why we don't believe what they've been saying about the termites, because it would have frightened off any buyer." He added: "What's more, if that were true, they would have taken the bugs with them in the stolen icons they took to Toledo."

In an attempt to retrieve the icons which provide a valuable lure for tourists, the Brotherhood launched a legal case which will be heard in court in León tomorrow. Representatives of the Brotherhood of the Third Order will appear before a judge to try to settle the matter.

Until now, it is unknown whether anything else is missing from the convent, given that the only person with a key is only admitting potential buyers.

The Carmelite nuns in Toledo have refused to comment on the controversy. Mother Mari Paz, of the order, would only say: "We are servants of God [...] We've come here to be silent, to pray and to forgive."