Police have arrested five Romanian nationals, four of whom were priests, who on October 6 stole a much-venerated relic from the monastery of Mega Spileo in the Peloponnese - the hand of Saint Haralambos – and are probing whether they had engaged in other such thefts of relics and religious objects.
The four Romanian clergymen – aged 44, 41, 33 and 21 – along with a 26-year-old layman - apparently acted with an organised plan.
They arrived at the monastery by tourist bus, and the 21-year-old removed the relic by breaking into the glass case that enclosed it with a sharp object, while the other four preoccupied the monk who was entrusted with guarding the relics.
The 21-year-old passed the relic to the 26-year-old, who hid it in his black robes. They hid it in the bus, and when they later repaired to a nearby restaurant for a meal, they hid it amidst nearby shrubs.
The monk at Mega Spileo immediately detected the theft and alerted police, who began a massive chase with officers from Kalavryta, Egio and Patras.
The culprits claimed they stole the encased hand of Saint Haralambos to transport it to their village in Romania.
But police found that one of the culprits was in possession of two unidentified skulls and a jaw, which they believe may also have been stolen from another church or monastery
Saint Haralambos, a third century martyr who was bishop of Magnesia in Asia minor, is one of the most revered saints in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.
The veneration of relics is very much part of Orthodox worship, and the faithful often queue for hours when they are transported to another venue to be venerated. Most such relics have been kept at various monasteries for centuries.
Mega Spileo Monastery, originally built in 362 AD in the Kalavryta region, is known for its miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is one of the most famous and beloved Orthodox shrines in Greece.