The St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki Church in Bulgaria’s Pepelina was built in 1925. It has now been robbed twice in 4 days, with the brazen thieves stealing 20 icons. Photo: Briag News
A total of three churches in small towns have been robbed in the Ruse District in Northeast Bulgaria, with the thieves stealing icons, among other religious artifacts.
All three church robberies occurred on the same date, November 1, 2019, through breaking and entering, the regional police directorate in the Danube city of Ruse has announced.
The thieves targeted the Bulgarian Orthodox Christian churches in the towns of Ostritsa, Karan Varbovka, and Pepelina, all of which are located in Dve Mogili Municipality, in or near the beautiful and picturesque canyon of the Cherni Lom River, in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park.
All three towns are in close proximity to the Orlova Chuka Cave, a major tourist attraction, and Bulgaria’s second longest cave, with a total of span of 14 kilometers.
The Cherni Lom is tributary to the Rusenski Lom, which in turn is a tributary to the Danube. A recent report has revealed that many of the valuable caves in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park in Northeast Bulgaria have been badly damaged by human activity.
From the church in Ostritsa, the thieves have stolen an icon and the priest’s clothing, and from churches in Karan Varbovka and Pepelina, they have taken four icons and two donation boxes, the Ruse police have announced.
One of the boxes contained at least BGN 100.00 (app. EUR 50.00), the amount of money in the other one remains unknown. The stolen icons, however, are known to be far more valuable.
The church in the town of Pepelina, however, was raided a second time in four days, on November 4, 2019, between 2 pm and 5 pm, once again through breaking and entering, with the thieves taking one large icon of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) with Baby Jesus (with dimensions 1.1 x 0.75 meters), and a total of 19 smaller icons.
The second robbery of the St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki Church (built in 1925) in Pepelina in just 4 days has shocked completely the local community, local media report.
Presently, the Regional Museum of History in the Black Sea city of Burgas in Southeast Bulgaria is presently running an annual Christmas fundraiser to restore several large icons, which the local police managed to recover from thieves in the late 1990s.
The theft of archaeological, historical, and cultural artifacts from museums, churches, and other institutions is part of the wider area of large-scale criminal activity in Bulgaria associated with treasure hunting and the theft and illegal trafficking of antiques.
Bulgaria has a very massive criminal industry of treasure hunting and antiques trafficking, with an estimated annual turnover of up to EUR 1 billion.
Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking.
An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.
According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.
According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.
One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past" (in which Ivan Dikov served as a fixer). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.