Churches are 'easy targets for criminals'

(Photo: Church of England/Colin Watts)

Churches are "easy targets for criminals", says the Countryside Alliance as it reveals that more than 4,000 crimes were committed at churches and religious premises over the past year.

Figures that the campaign organisation for rural areas gathered from police forces show 4,052 incidents of theft, vandalism, assault or burglary at churches across the UK in the 12 months to July this year, despite eight months of lockdown.

The latest figures are down on the more than 5,000 crimes reported for 2019/2020 when the Countryside Alliance warned that Britain risked being "engulfed by a church crimewave".

The 2020/21 figures were obtained from 38 of the UK's 45 territorial police forces under the Freedom of Information Act.

They show 1,688 incidents of vandalism and criminal damage, including arson, and 824 incidents of violence, including sexual assault and assault on an officer. Around 1,450 thefts were recorded, including over 100 lead thefts.

The worst-hit areas are largely in the south-east of England with Sussex Police recording 367 crimes, Kent 209 cases and the Metropolitan Police 575.

The alliance report includes an incident last year where a vicar at Chadwell Heath Baptist Church in east London tackled a vandal trying to rip a cross off the church roof and held him until police arrived to arrest the suspect.

"In Sussex, police recorded six sexual assaults including a rape in a churchyard while there was another alleged rape of an underage girl and three sex offences in cemeteries," the alliance said. 

"Other offences include thieves stealing lead from the roof of St Saviour's Church in Eastbourne last year and vandalising its war memorial," the organisation says.

Countryside Alliance spokesman Mo Metcalf-Fisher commented: "We are presented with a grim reality that many churches and places of worship are being treated as easy targets by criminals.

"These are supposed to be places where people go to seek solace, but all too often they are subjected to heinous crimes, either in or on their property.

"We cannot allow these precious places, which are often the centre of villages and towns across the country, to go unguarded and be so exposed."

The organisation is calling for increased government funding for security at places of worship.

A spokesman for the Church of England, which has 16,000 buildings, said: "Crime on church premises is not always crime directed against the church. We encourage churches to engage with the police and others over crime on their premises."