Police hunt for culprits behind Provençal church bell robberies
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French police are hunting for robbers who have stolen bronze bells from the steeples of listed Provencal churches in the dead of night over the past month.
Residents of Ginasservis and Brue-Auriac as well as the village of Esparron-de-Pallieres (population 350) have been left dumbfounded by the mysterious disappearance of their churches' chimes.
The first to be targeted was Ginasservis, a town of 1,800 souls 80 kilometres northeast of Marseille, where two bronze bells weighing between 50 and 80 kilogrammes each, one dating from 1737 and the other from 1867, were stolen from two different churches on July 21.
The robbers had to cross a graveyard to reach one of the chapels, Le Parisien newspaper reported Wednesday.
In the process of taking down the bells they damaged the roof of the church.
On August 10, they struck again, this time 25 kilometres away in Brue-Auriac, where they made off with a bell from a 12th-century Romanesque church weighing 85 kilos.
"The chapel is outside the centre of the village, which is probably why it was targeted," the town's mayor, Andre Rousselet, told AFP.
"The bell has already probably been melted down," he said, since the engravings on the bell, including the seal of the bell foundry, would make it difficult to sell on.
Last week it was the turn of the nearby hamlet of Esparron-de-Pallieres, where another listed 12th-century Romanesque church, on a hillside among ancient oak trees, was left bereft of its treasured 50-kilogramme bell.
The only trace of the robbers' presence was the roof tiles found scattered on the ground.
The public prosecutor leading the investigation into the three incidents told AFP it was still unclear if the robberies were linked.
"We take this very seriously. Either the bells are being sold on or they are being melted down for the bronze," prosecutor Pierre Arpaia said.
Le Parisien cited a source familiar with the traffic of stolen goods as confirming there was a thriving black market for old church bells, which can fetch up to 20,000 euros ($22,200) a piece among collectors of old artworks or religious artefacts.
Catholic authorities in the Var diocese, where the churches are located, have told worshippers to be on their guard.
"What more can we do?", one priest told Le Parisien, adding that all parishioners could do was "pray".