When Art Thieves Target Treasures In Churches

Churches are besieged by a specific type of thief — those hired by art collectors to steal specific pieces. The intrinsic loss caused by these actions is often irreparable, but church communities in Germany are starting to fight back.

Rottenbuch Abbey (Kloster Rottenbuch) in Rottenbuch, Bavaria
Rottenbuch Abbey (Kloster Rottenbuch) in Rottenbuch, Bavaria
Tobias Heimbach

BERLIN â€" In Germany, break-ins are on the rise and it seems not even churches are safe. In 2015, police registered 167,000 domestic break-ins â€" a 10% increase on the previous year.

But thieves who target churches constitute a particular breed.

"The most organised are thieves who are hired by collectors to steal,” says insurance expert Lutz Dettmer of the Ecclesia Insurance agency. "These clients have usually cast their eyes on art treasures or sacred objects."

Unless the objects are sold soon after they have been stolen, it can be quite difficult to trace and retrieve them.

One such case occurred three years ago in the bishopric of Münster, where thieves stole the Borghorst monastery crucifix, a significant gold item dating back to the 11th century. The three perpetrators were eventually caught and sentenced to a few years in prison, but the crucifix has never been found.

For church communities, these items are often irreplaceable.

"The material value of these items may be low but the loss of their intrinsic value is much larger," said dean of the Cologne Cathedral, Gerd Bachner in the summer during which thieves stole a reliquary containing the blood of Pope John Paul II.

Many of the thieves are merely petty criminals, stealing church valuables without rhyme or reason. Others are trying to finance their drug addiction.

They break into church community centers and church-run kindergartens because the loot from these institutions can often be sold on much more easily than art treasures. But generally speaking they steal "everything that isn’t tied down," according to the diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.

Dettmer recalls a case in Düsseldorf, where thieves stole an intricately and richly decorated monstrance from a church and tried to sell it at a nearby pawn shop. Employees there alerted the police who later arrested the thieves.

Beyond the more sacred items like monstrances and chalices, thieves regularly break open the offertory box, which contains monetary donations made to the church. Microphones and other technological items are up for grabs, as are metal objects like copper spouts.

Catholic communities are typically targeted because their churches tend to be furnished with highly valuable materials.

But more often than not, the biggest financial cost comes not from the loss of these items but rather the damage caused to windows and doors during a break-in.

Crime statistics also show that there are regional differences in the rates of theft, with more churches in the country’s east and north targeted than in the south and west.

"It appears to be the case that in regions where the Church is still a part of community life the moral threshold to rob seems to be much higher,” says Dettmer.

At the Lutheran Protestant Church in Saxony there were seven break-ins in seven days during the month of June. Whereas the bishopric of Augsburg in the southern region of Bavaria, which has more than 2,000 churches within its confines, registered only 42 break-ins, or attempted break-ins, in the last five years.

Aware they are facing a new challenge, churches have decided to take action incorporating theft prevention when planning refurbishments and new buildings.

At the archbishopric of Freiburg, a data bank contains 200,000 entries, including photos, pertaining to the church’s art treasures. The Protestant Church of Central Germany has chosen to take a similar path.

"The awareness of the problem at hand is most certainly present," says Dettmer.

On occasion, police have managed to crack some difficult cases. A figurine of Saint John from the late Gothic period, which was stolen from a church in Haigerloch-Owingen (Baden-Wurttemberg) over 41 years ago, was recently discovered on sale on eBay. It led police to Slovakia where they reclaimed the item. It is likely to be returned to its traditional resting place soon.

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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