AFP, November 4, 2019
Robbers tied a tree trunk to their car and used it as a battering ram to smash into a French cathedral and steal irreplaceable treasures last night.
The thieves rammed into the church in Oloron-Sainte-Marie in the early hours of this morning, local authorities said, as witnesses reported seeing three people involved in the heist.
Once inside, the robbers helped themselves to chalices and other ceremonial objects, much of it gold, as well as a 17th-century nativity scene and a collection of clothes.
The treasures had been kept in a chapel, guarded by steel bars which were ‘sawn through’ this morning, said an official in the town in the south of France.
‘The mayor was informed at about 2am after locals woken by the noise and the cathedral alarm alerted the police,’ town official Laurent Paris said.
The suspects ditched the car – reportedly a Peugeot 106 – at the scene and left in another vehicle, according to reports.
Experts will assess the loot taken, but Mr Paris described the loss as ‘considerable’.
‘Over and above the monetary value, residents now find themselves cut off from their history and their heritage,’ he said.
The Mayor of Oloron, Herve Lucbereilh, said: ‘We have lost an irreplaceable collection that we were very fond of.’
Among the items allegedly stolen are priestly garbs from the 16th century, given by King Francois I to the local bishop at the time.
Also stolen were ornate gold crosses, most of them made in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Witnesses saw three people take part in the theft, he said, adding that it was the first time the cathedral had been attacked.
French culture minister Franck Riester vowed today that the attackers would be ‘found and punished’.
‘I condemn with the utmost firmness the attack perpetrated against the cathedral of Oloron-Sainte-Marie and share the emotion of the Catholics of France who are shocked by this theft,’ he said.
Specialist forensic police from the city of Pau have been called in to investigate and authorities are examining CCTV footage in the area.
Marc Aillet, the Bishop of Bayonne, Lescar and Oloron has labelled the theft as ‘sacrilegious’.
He told local media: ‘These are religious artefacts that have been stolen. In some cases they are still used for religious ceremonies today by the faithful.’
Oloron-Sainte-Marie is a favourite stopover for Catholic pilgrims headed for the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
The edifice was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
It lies just over 30 miles from the Spanish border and is best known for one of its oldest remaining features, a Romanesque portal sculpted in the 12th century.
The building burned in the 13th century, and again in the early 14th. It was pillaged at the end of the 16th during France’s religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots.
Fixed and remodelled several times up until the 18th century, it was fully restored in the 19th century.
France’s most famous cathedral, Notre Dame in Paris, was ravaged by fire in April although most of its treasures were saved.