Religious valuables in the region are the growing target of thieves -- especially in villages that were deserted during the 1990s conflicts.
By Biljana Lajmanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 29/05/12
Art thieves are targeting religious icons in abandoned Balkan churches. [Reuters]
The last few years have seen an increase in the number of church thefts in almost all Balkan countries, with the disappearance of money and other valuable objects.
Churches need better state activity to protect the cultural legacy; police protection, security cameras and alarms are not enough, religious leaders said.
Thieves are well versed in the value of precious religious objects, and usually the most difficult obstacle they face in churches is a single locked door. As a result of the migration that occurred during the 1990s conflict, villages remain deserted and the religious buildings become unprotected.
"This is a process with no reversal. People will not return to their homesteads, so we need urgent action to protect cultural heritage. This should be done before it is too late," Darko Nikolovski, from the Macedonian Institute for Protection of Monuments of Culture, told SETimes.
Bishop Timotej of the Debar-Kicevo Diocese of the Macedonian Orthodox Church said that valuable icons in deserted churches should be replaced with copies.
"Not expensive copies, but simple, cheaper copies. But we cannot do this because the villagers say, 'These icons belong to us, we will not give them up.' I don't know why it is in someone's interest to leave the church paintings unprotected," Timotej told SETimes.
Replacing icons with copies in Macedonia and other Balkan countries is too expensive a project for now, Nikolovski said.
"This is one of the options, [but] we have to think of the expenses of conservation, restoration, and storage, which is the biggest problem. We'll have to build separate depots for storing the icons. It's a huge project," said Nikolovski.
Police find it hard to trace stolen icons, due to organisation that goes beyond the borders of Balkan countries.
Two years ago, a 34-year old Greek citizen was sentenced to six months in jail in Macedonia for an attempt to smuggle icons across the Macedonia-Greece border. In most cases, however, police fail to find the criminals.
Precise data records would allow for Interpol to be included in the search for the stolen art. But creating a database of church icons would come at a high cost, since the institutions now have no official records of the art in Macedonian churches....