Priests May Get Guns to Fight Off Art Thieves

Police in the Kostroma 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 local Russian Orthodox diocese said churchwardens probably would not wield guns because the biblical commandment prohibiting killing implied that priests could not bear 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 remote rural churches, vanishing long before police arrived.

At least one priest was killed by robbers in the Ural Mountains and another shot at when he confronted thieves raiding his church.

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 that priests apply to the Interior Ministry as private individuals for a firearm license for purposes of self-defense," regional police spokeswoman Yelena Kirshanova said by telephone from Kostroma.

"These [thieves] are organized criminal groups," she said.

Father Andrei Kazarin, secretary of the Orthodox Church's Kostroma diocese, said priests faced being defrocked if they violated the commandment not to kill, but that it would be permissible for sextons or churchwardens to have firearms.

Kazarin said rural churches, many recently restored after lying empty for decades under Communist rule, were easy pickings for criminals.

In a raid in a rural district of Kostroma, one priest single-handedly resisted several armed men seeking to steal antique icons, Kazarin said.

Police arrived only an hour later, he said.

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 in a raid to steal icons from a local church, an incident that caused some commentators to decry the current erosion of moral values.

"A state program to protect churches is needed. When I go abroad, I see antique shops filled with numerous Russian artifacts, for example in Germany and Jerusalem," he said. "We've repeatedly raised this issue but see no change," he said.