MOSCOW (Reuters) – Police in a central Russian region have advised priests to apply for firearms licenses so they can defend their churches from marauding thieves who have been stealing religious icons at gunpoint.
But a cleric with the Russian Orthodox diocese of Kostroma said the guns would probably be wielded by church wardens because the biblical commandment — Thou shalt not kill — prohibited priests themselves from bearing arms.
Local police issued the advice after a spate of attacks in which thieves, often armed with submachine guns and traveling in off-road vehicles, stole icons from hard-to-reach rural churches and vanished long before police arrived.
At least one priest was killed by robbers in the Ural Mountains region and another was shot at when he confronted thieves during a raid on his church.
The stolen icons can be worth thousands of dollars and are often sold on the black market or smuggled abroad where they go on sale in antique shops, church officials said.
“The police are recommending to priests that they should apply, as private individuals, to the Interior Ministry’s offices and request a license to own firearms for self-defense,” regional police spokeswoman Yelena Kirshanova told Reuters.
“These (thieves) are organized criminal groups,” she said by telephone from Kostroma, some 320 km (200 miles) northeast of Moscow.
Father Andrei Kazarin, Secretary of the Orthodox Church’s Kostroma diocese, said priests faced being defrocked if they violating the commandment not to kill.
But he added: “It would be quite possible to give firearms to sextons or church wardens.”
Kazarin said rural churches, many of them restored in the last few years after lying empty for decades under Communist rule, were easy pickings for criminals.
“They (the thieves) are not afraid of the locals and drive in to break into churches in daytime,” he said.
In a raid on a church in one of the Kostroma region’s rural districts, Kazarin said that one priest single-handedly resisted several armed men seeking to steal antique icons. Police arrived only an hour later.
Police spokeswoman Kirshanova said the robbers fired several shots at the priest, who risked his life to call fellow villagers to help.
Church officials say there is no easy solution to the crime wave. 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 to steal 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 program to protect churches. It is not only up to the church to defend itself because this is also 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 literally laden with all sorts of artifacts, mainly Russian. I saw this in Germany, I saw this in Jerusalem,” he said. “We’ve repeatedly raised this issue but seen no change.”