THOUSANDS OF VALUABLE sacred objects stolen from ransacked churches in the former Yugoslavia are being sold illegally in Britain to foreign collectors and art-dealers, according to a London newspaper. The Sunday Times said items on sale, including crosses, icons, candlesticks and furnishings, appeared in a 26-minute film currently being shown secretly to private buyers. The newspaper added that the displayed artworks included 24 paintings, each valued at about $30,000.

The report follows evidence of systematic looting at churches and mosques during five years of fighting in Croatia and Bosnia, especially in areas subjected to “ethnic cleansing.” In a June 21 message to an international meeting of priests at the Portuguese shrine of Fatima, Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo said a total of 610 Catholic churches were now confirmed destroyed in Bosnia, along with properties and possessions in two-thirds of the parishes. At least 1100 of the republic's mosques were also destroyed, with 73 imams killed and a further 32 missing presumed dead, according to a May statement by Sefko Omerbasic, the head of Croatia's Moslem community.

Looting and vandalism at places of worship is reported to have continued even after the November 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. In Serbia, doors and windows at Belgrade's Franciscan monastery and adjoining Saint Anne's Catholic church were damaged by a bomb in April. The incident, which followed earlier attacks on Franciscan monasteries at Bac and Pancevo, took place after a bomb attack on the capital's single surviving mosque, which is currently the only place of worship for Belgrade's 150,000 Moslems.

In Slovenia, the Mladina weekly reported in January that church thefts had “drastically increased” since independence in 1991, with almost half of a total of 77 major art thefts occurring at churches and chapels. The paper added that most stolen statues, chalices and candelabras were believed to have been smuggled to Austria and Italy, often by prior arrangement with local collectors.

In its report, the Sunday Times said the Croatian government said significant robberies had been reported at 250 churches, 300 monuments, 22 libraries and nine archives, with more than 200,000 objects registered as missing. Every Catholic church and chapel was reported ransacked in the Krajina region, which occupies 27 percent of Croatian territory, recaptured in August 1995 after a four-year Serb occupation. (Jonathan Luxmoore)