VANDALISM and theft in churches across Herefordshire is changing religious buildings from havens of sanctuary to security strongholds. Tourists and parishioners are increasingly finding church doors closed and bolted as vicars and wardens are forced to act to protect the fabric and contents of their buildings.

NATIONAL headlines greeted the trial and jailing of Christopher Coulthard for stealing from more than 500 churches across the country.

But while these crimes were exposed in the full media spotlight they are just a fraction of those committed against churches every year.

Most of them are not reported, much is never detected, but the result is to close the door on churches, drive them further from the centre of the community and close major tourist attractions.

An offertory box in one of Herefordshire's most rural churches has long been the source of pocket money to a petty thief.

Though the vicar of St Margaret's, near Hay-on-Wye, can't be sure, he believes someone has been pilfering notes through a slit in the wall-safe on a regular basis.

The Rev. Frank Rodgers said: "We think they have been doing it for years. We have put marked notes in the safe and they have disappeared.

"But of course it is almost impossible to know, when we aren't sure how much money is in there at any one time."

But while wall safes are an obvious target, almost anything not tied down has been lifted from a church somewhere at sometime.

"They stole the tiles off the roof of Craswall Church, in the middle of the night," said Mr Rodgers. "Neatly stacked up about 350 Welsh slate tiles, loaded them on to a truck and drove off.

"We found the remains of their sandwich box and bottle of pop."

Individual incidents are often too petty to record and too numerous to count but they are building up to a powerful argument for keeping churches locked throughout the day.

Archdeacon John Tiller said: "We prefer to keep churches open. But we do have to recognise that there are certain risks and sometimes churches have to close."

Although no figures are available on how many churches in Herefordshire are still open to visitors, the number is steadily decreasing and could be down to half of those in the county.

The decision to close a church hinges on its geographical location, the number of people who visit and the view of the parochial church council.

Tourist magnet

The Rev. Jimmy Morrison whose ministry includes Lyde Church, which is kept locked, said: "We had so much trouble we had to lock it, principally because it is on the A49.

"But even so we have twice had break-ins through stained glass windows in the last two years."

But for rural communities that have been stripped of their pubs and shops, a church is often the last centre of community and a powerful magnet for tourists.

As reported in last week's Hereford Times churches are seen as a major asset in the fight to attract more tourism to the county.

A tourist trail set up by Herefordshire Council now includes more than 50 churches with more being actively sought.

Herefordshire Churches Tourism Group secretary Lisette Davies said: "We believe that if there are visitors popping in and looking around it adds to security.

"An important part of what the group is trying to achieve is to ensure churches are accessible. We believe in the ministry of welcome both in the abstract and the concrete."

It is at this contact between the Christian ideals of charity, forgiveness and care for your neighbour, with the practicalities of protecting churches from damage and crime, that the battle is being fought.

Spokesperson for the Bishop of Hereford, Annie Holden said: "A locked church is not a good advertisement for Christianity.

"We are a trusting organisation. We are here to love everybody so we have to trust them.

"That is what God is about."