The Catholic Church has appealed to thieves to return a reliquary containing the blood of the late Pope John Paul II that disappeared in what it called a “vile and sacrilegious theft”.

The gold reliquary was stolen at the weekend from a small stone church, San Pietro della Ienca, in the mountains east of Rome, where, in his younger days, the pope would slip away secretly from the pressures of the Vatican to hike and ski.

“I appeal to those who carried out this deplorable act,” Archbishop Giuseppe Petrocchi of the city of L’Aquila told local Catholics on Monday. “Give it back.”

Many Catholic churches have reliquaries, usually small, ornate containers that hold relics, in some cases body parts of revered church figures.

The one stolen at the weekend contained a blood-soaked piece of cloth, most likely from the cassock John Paul was wearing on May 13, 1981 when he was shot in an assassination attempt, the office of monsignor Slowomir Oder, the official in charge of John Paul’s sainthood cause, said.

Oder’s office said Italian media reports that there were only three such blood relics of the late pope in the world were wrong.

Franca Corrieri, a custodian of the church, said window bars had been sawn off. Police found only the gold reliquary and a crucifix missing. – Reuters