A POLICE campaign to protect churches and religious buildings from thieves and vandals has been launched across Hambleton and Richmondshire.

Churchwatch will encourage residents and churchgoers to be on the lookout for suspicious behaviour so the alarm can be raised.

The scheme follows a series of thefts and damage at churches, chapels and other places of worship across the area over the past few years.

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Lead stolen from roofs is a major problem. Last year, climber and local farmer Chris Brown was called on to help assess the damage to his church, St James at Baldersby, near Thirsk, after thieves struck, stealing lead and causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

St Peter’s Church, at Croft, between Northallerton and Darlington was left with bills of more than £80,000 after thieves hit five times in five years, stripping lead from roofs and gutters.

St Joan of Arc Roman Catholic church in Catterick Garrison was damaged five times in four months at one stage, with vandals smashing up to 20 windows.

One of the major problems is that churches often stand on secluded and isolated sites and are left unlocked because they are a focal point for the community.

North Yorkshire police are hoping the new churchwatch scheme will help groups work together.

The scheme uses the Ringmaster system to warn people responsible for looking after churches if there are thefts, or people are seen acting suspiciously.

Police Community Support Officer Angie Preston, of Northallerton Safer Neighbourhood team, is leading the scheme.

She said: “Churches, chapels and other places of worship are home to items of historical and monetary value which attract the attention of thieves intent on depriving local communities of their heritage.

“Due to many of them being in small villages or unattended most of the time, they can be vulnerable to crime. I am encouraging anyone connected with churches such as vicars, priests and church wardens to sign up to Ringmaster.”

PCSO Preston added: “If you notice anyone acting suspiciously near religious buildings contact the police straight away so that we can send out alerts.”

The police say the general design and function of churches and places of worship makes general security more complicated but have put advice on how to improve it on their website.

They say valuables should be locked away even if the church itself cannot be locked up.

Churches are also advised to consider putting particularly valuable church plates in the bank for special events and chaining antique furniture and valuables discreetly to floors and walls.

To join the Ringmaster scheme go to www.nypcommunitymessaging.org and for advice on security www.northyorkshire.police.uk/churchsecurity