Police set up roadblocks and launched helicopter searches for thieves who scaled a cliff and stole a 700-year-old religious icon from a monastery in southern Greece.
The Icon of The Virgin Mary, which is credited with miracles, was reported missing yesterday at the Orthodox Christian monastery of Elona, near the town of Leonidio, about 185 miles south-west of Athens.
"This is the worst thing that could happen to us, our church and our religion," said Metropolitan Bishop Alexandros of Mantineia and Kynouria.
Describing the icon, which measures 16 by 20 inches, as "priceless", Bishop Alexandros said he believed the thieves had used climbing equipment to reach the monastery, built into a cliff-face.
He said they may have been hiding in the grounds of the building before it closed for the evening on Thursday.
Father Nikolaos Sarantis, a local priest, said he believed the theft was well planned.
"It is very difficult to climb down from there. But they clung to the rock like Satans," he said.
Three nuns are currently staying at the monastery and reported the theft to police.
Police yesterday extended the search and roadblocks to 100km (60 miles) from the monastery. They also found ropes used by the thieves to guide their way across the roof of a monastery building.
The deputy head of the Greek Police, a former senior anti-terrorism officer, is heading the investigation.
Thousands of worshippers visit the icon each year, most around August 15, an Orthodox Christian religious holiday in honour of the Virgin Mary.
The stolen artwork was one of several famous religious icons in Greece, where offerings or votive gifts are left by worshippers who pray for recovery from illness or successful conception, or make other prayers.