THE vicar of a tiny North-East church spoke of his shock yesterday after his congregation was caught up in one of Britain's biggest murder investigations.

Detectives hunting the killer of Surrey schoolgirl Amanda "Milly" Dowler have confirmed that DNA found on an item of her clothing matched that discovered hundreds of miles away on a coffee cup from the Sunderland church.

And, as samples from 46 men who worship at St Paul's, in Ryhope, were collected at the weekend and taken away for forensic analysis, the Reverend David Meakin revealed his parish had been shaken to the core.

"The reaction of everyone was surprise, shock - and some people were literally shaking.

"But in spite of that, everyone was eager to help police as best we could."

The vicar, who was also DNA-tested as part of the investigation, added: "It's just such a freaky link that should drag us into this. I would love it to get to the point where there was some sort of answer."

The intriguing clue came as detectives carried out a routine investigation into a distraction burglary at the church on October 31 last year.

Two intruders asked for a cup of water before escaping with Poppy Day collection boxes.

During the investigation into the theft, a sample of DNA was recovered from saliva on the cup and was run through the national computer database just before Christmas.

The sample, which officers say does not belong to the burglars, appeared to match DNA recovered from clothing collected from Milly's bedroom after her disappearance last March.

Surrey Police described the match as an interesting development but stressed it was not, as yet, being treated as a significant find or breakthrough in the case.

Officers are not saying what the item of Milly's clothing is but are maintaining the possibility that the match could be the result of freak, and perfectly innocent, coincidence.

Scenarios they are looking at include that the clothing may have been second hand from the Sunderland area - new but had been tried on by someone else in a shop - or that someone from Sunderland had somehow come into contact with Milly in Surrey.

A police spokesman said: "What we are trying to stress very strongly is that the person (who this DNA belongs to) is not at this stage a suspect in the murder inquiry. We want to interview this person to get some explanation.

"There is nothing to suggest that they are linked to the abduction and murder of Amanda Dowler, but it is a very odd coincidence that we need to find an explanation for."

The 13-year-old disappeared while walking home from school in Walton-on-Thames, sparking a huge manhunt and several high profile public appeals for information.

Her remains were discovered in woods in Hampshire in September.

The news that the focus of the inquiry had shifted 350 miles away to the North-East produced a horrified reaction in Ryhope.

Shop owner Bindu Ravindran, 34, said: "The church is the focal point of the community, and the whole community has been affected and shocked by this news."

Tracy Cutter, 32, who lives near the church said: "The thought of this in the village is very scary.

"It was a shock to realise that we were involved in this investigation.

"I was keen, as were other parishioners, to assist police."