· Unguarded churches offer rich pickings for criminals
· Atrocious roads blamed for slow police response

This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday March 20 2008 on p27 of the International section. It was last updated at 00:17 on March 20 2008.

It was the middle of the day, and in the village of Sidorovoskaya four visitors turned up unannounced at the church. Armed with automatic weapons, the men broke into the orthodox building and made off with the church’s prized medieval icon.

When the priest arrived at the scene the robbers stuck a gun in his chest. “Go home, leave peacefully and forget about us,” they said, before escaping in a 4×4.

The robbery last year was the latest in a series of attacks on churches inside Russia’s Golden ring – the ancient towns close to Moscow where orthodox Christianity first took root in the 10th century.

Now police in the region have come up with a novel solution to the problem of icon raids: they have advised priests to apply for firearms licences and carry guns.

Given the atrocious state of the area’s roads, detectives say that weapons are the only way to deter marauding criminals. The police concede that by the time they arrive the gangs have long gone.

“The police are recommending to priests that they should apply, as private individuals, to the interior ministry’s offices and request a licence to own firearms for self-defence,” a regional police spokeswoman, Yelena Kirshanova, told Reuters.

Yesterday, however, a spokesman for the Kostroma diocese, 200 miles north-east of Moscow, said he thought it inappropriate for Russian orthodox priests to carry weapons.

“Of course it’s nonsense for priests to have a gun,” said Father Andrei Kazarin. “They would never do it. But if a churchwarden or a sexton carries a gun we wouldn’t object. [But] we don’t believe in shooting anybody. Human life is more important than an icon.”

Kazarin said that thieves started targeting isolated village churches in the early 1990s, following the break-up of the Soviet Union. The problem has grown more acute, with well-armed organised gangs now using off-road vehicles.

Russia’s orthodox church had responded by shifting valuable objects such as icons to better-protected city churches, he said. But this had failed to deter criminals who have grown ever more resourceful.

In Sidorovoskaya raiders blocked the road with a fallen tree before making their escape to hamper the police. “Most churches have some kind of burglar alarm linked to the local militia,” he said. “But the roads are so bad the police don’t make it in time. We have been offered a modern video system. But it costs £1,600, a fortune for a village church.”

Church officials say there is no easy solution. Widespread alcoholism and drug addiction have led to a rise in crime, while religious artworks in churches and monasteries are a tempting target for thieves.

Last year thieves killed a priest in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk while stealing icons from a local church. That case led to a bout of nationwide soul-searching about what commentators called the erosion of moral values in modern Russia.

“There must be a state programme to protect churches. It is not only up to the church to defend itself because this is everyone’s heritage,” Kazarin said. “Orthodox icon-painting has been universally acknowledged to be a pinnacle of Russian art.

“Every time I go abroad, I see antique shops laden with all sorts of artefacts, mainly Russian. I saw this in Germany, I saw this in Jerusalem. We’ve repeatedly raised this issue but seen no change.”

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