A gold ring stolen from the statue of Saint Nicholas in an Italian church

A thief broke into the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in the southern Italian city of Bari, stealing a gold ring from the finger of a statue of the saint, which is particularly popular in Russia

ROME – A thief broke into the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in the southern city of Bari overnight, stealing a gold ring from the finger of a statue of the saint, who is venerated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians and whose remains are attracting many pilgrims from Russia to the Italian church, officials said Tuesday.

According to the Corriere della Sera daily, Bari police said CCTV cameras showed a hooded and masked man opening a metal door to enter the basilica before dawn on Tuesday. Church officials say the thief stole money left by worshipers in a collection box and opened, without damaging anything, a display case which displays a large statue of the saint.

Along with the ring, the thief grabbed a book, adorned with silver, which the statue of the saint was holding in one hand, authorities said.

Nicolas is highly revered in Bari, a port city on the Adriatic, and his popularity is seen as a bridge between West and East.

“With this gesture, the raw nerves of the faithful and of the culture of Bari have been touched,” Archbishop of Bari Giuseppe Satriano told TV2000, an Italian Catholic television channel. He argued that the stolen items would be difficult to sell because they are well known and cataloged.

The theft is a “sacrilege, an obscene act”, said Bari Mayor Antonio Decaro.

The basilica is a popular pilgrimage destination, especially for visitors from Russia. In 2003, a statue of the saint was erected outside the church as a gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Born in Turkey in the 3rd century, Nicolas is the patron saint of sailors. As a young man, Nicholas boarded a ship to go to the Holy Land, and on the way back the ship was threatened by a big storm, according to the Vatican. After he prayed, the waves died down. Sailors from Bari eventually acquired his remains and brought them to the southern Italian city in 1087, where they were later buried in a crypt in a new church.

Martha J. Finley