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GIANI-INTERPOL Nov-8-2012 (550 words) With photo. xxxi

Vatican police chief talks to Interpol about protecting religious art

Domenico Giani, the Vatican police chief, keeps watch during the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 28. (CNS/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Churches, particularly in Italy and Europe, are packed with valuable works of art that thieves can carry away with greater ease when a church is practically abandoned or when the priest and local people have no idea of the objects' value, said the Vatican's police chief.

Humanity's spiritual thirst and desire to praise God "have given life to works of inestimable value and to a religious patrimony that gives rise to greed and the interest of art traffickers," Domenico Giani, the head of the Vatican police, told members of Interpol.

Giani spoke Nov. 7 in Rome at the general assembly of Interpol, the international police organization that coordinates crime fighting and crime prevention around the world.

Many of the religious artworks created by and for Catholics, Giani said, are difficult to protect because they often are in isolated church buildings where no anti-theft measures are employed, or in churches that basically are abandoned because religious practice has fallen so steeply.

In addition, he said, "in countries where revolts are under way or there are internal struggles fed by a hatred so strong that people try to destroy anything that represents 'the enemy,'" the conditions are ripe for the theft of religious art and its permanent loss.

While the Vatican doesn't have those problems, it does recognize its potential "vulnerability" as a target for art thieves because of the high value of its artworks -- monetarily, but also as immense witness to the faith throughout the ages, he said. The Vatican is "dense with artistic riches," so much so that UNESCO considers Vatican City as a whole -- all 109 acres of it -- to be a world heritage site.

"Every angle of Vatican City holds a work of high value," he said.

To share that art with the world and allow it to speak of faith to as many people as possible, most of the great works are in St. Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums where hundreds of custodians and trained police officers keep vigil, he said.

But, he said, the vast holdings of the Vatican Secret Archives, the Vatican Library and Vatican offices also include priceless items that could tempt art thieves.

While the Vatican tries to keep up with the most modern anti-theft technology -- for example, by putting electronic chips in the libraries' books and manuscripts -- if the people working in the museums, library, basilica, archives and Vatican offices don't realize the importance of the works surrounding them, thieves will still find a way to steal things, Giani said.

The prevention of theft and protection of artworks always will require a combination of technology and human awareness, he said.

As for the works scattered among parishes and dioceses around the world, Giani said it is absolutely necessary that local Catholic authorities obey a 1999 Vatican directive that they make a complete inventory of their art, including detailed descriptions and high-quality photographs of each item.

Interpol maintains a photo database of stolen art works, which "makes the illicit trafficking of cultural goods much more difficult" because potential buyers can see that they are stolen, he said.

Not only does an inventory offer the only hope for getting a lost item back, he said, it also ensures that local Catholic officials are aware of the items they have.


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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