BRAZEN thieves who stole a religious relic from an ancient monastery are believed to have been planning the robbery for weeks.
The relic -- said to be part of the cross on which Jesus died -- has been the source of devotion and pilgrimage for the last 900 years.
The miniature artefact, brought to Holycross Abbey in Thurles, Co Tipperary, in the late 12th century, was taken by two masked men armed with an angle grinder on Tuesday in a daylight raid.
The relic was contained in a 12-inch high gold and bronze cross with a glass centrepiece presented by Rome in 1977.
The raiders also took a 12-inch high silver cross which hung from a chain and contained two crosses and two dark stones. It had been in Holycross since 1180.
Holycross Abbey parish priest Fr Tom Breen last night pleaded for the safe return of the relic.
He told the Irish Independent he believed the robbery was planned weeks in advance.
Fr Breen was celebrating a wedding on September 24 when three sets of keys were removed from the sacristy.
Although all the abbey's locks were changed, he believes the two incidents are linked.
"I'm totally baffled as to why they would take the relics, they have little commercial value, even if melted down" he said.
But the loss to the community was "immeasurable", he added, as busloads of tourists arrived at the site yesterday. The Abbey receives up to 250,000 visitors annually.
"I would appeal to the thieves in the strongest possible terms not to damage the relic -- just leave the artefacts in some church and they will eventually come back to me or we will use a third person," Fr Breen said.
"I would in my heart feel that the thieves had no real appreciation of what it was they were taking and I would hope that they didn't have any ulterior motive."
The church is busy with visitors until late every day and was unlocked as usual when the thieves struck on Tuesday evening. They covered their faces to thwart the CCTV.
The cross housing the relic was locked inside a steel display frame which the thieves cut open with the angle grinder.
The masked men were seen by visitors to the abbey leaving the church grounds and getting into a red Volkswagen Touareg with an 06 registration.
Fr Breen said that he suspected two women were responsible for taking the keys from the sacristy last month.
However, he said he was "quite sure" it was nobody from the parish.
Gangs have targeted churches in the south-east in recent months. They have been particularly interested in chalices made of precious gold or silver to melt down for cash.
To date, Holycross Abbey has only been targeted for minor break-ins, all of which were solved quickly by local gardai.
Officers are calling on anyone who witnessed suspicious activity near Holycross Abbey on Tuesday to contact them in Thurles on 0504 25100.