Thieves target churches 200 times in one year in Northern Ireland
More than 200 thefts have taken place at churches all over Northern Ireland in the last year, as robbers steal everything from headstones to guttering, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Mobile phones, computers, cheque books, handbags, purses, flat screen televisions, cameras, wheelie bins and even lead from church roofs have been taken during a 12-month period.
The figures, released by the PSNI following a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper, outline thefts at places of worship across the province.
They include Belfast, Dromore, Larne, Lisburn, Hillsborough, Omagh, Trillick, Warrenpoint and Portadown.
Jewellery, house keys, bank cards and cash - including £1,000 in one case - were among items commonly taken.
Other items include iron gates, roof tiles, 500 litres of heating oil, a cement mixer, spectacles, a dishwasher, groceries, cigarettes - and £10 from a collection tin.
North Antrim DUP MLA Paul Frew, the chairman of Stormont's justice committee, said stealing from a place of worship was "a despicable act".
"The range of items that have been stolen shows the brazen attitude of those who have committed these opportunistic crimes," he said. "Church thefts are not specific to one particular area and I know police have been liaising with churches and communities to make sure they are safety-conscious and secure any valuable items. I would urge anyone with any details of suspicious activity around places of worship to contact the police.
"Similarly, I would also encourage any church-goers to keep their valuables safe and secure when going to their place of worship."
UUP justice spokesman Doug Beattie described the figures as "staggering".
"It is clear that there is a major problem with regard to thefts from churches and religious buildings," he said. "It is a sad indictment of our society that so many people should have personal property and possessions stolen while they are at places of worship.
"Stealing lead from the roof of a church is also indicative of a complete lack of respect.
"When people attend places of worship they may, quite understandably, regard themselves as being in a safe environment, where the theft of property is far from their minds.
"Unfortunately, thieves see opportunity everywhere, and people must take reasonable steps to secure their property and valuables at all times."
Mr Beattie said the justice system must be firm on those who target our churches.
"I would also call on the courts to ensure that when people are caught and convicted of thefts they are given the sentences that serve as both punishment and deterrent," he added.
"Light sentences do nothing to help public confidence in the justice system or to protect the public."