Pope Francis’s landmark conference on Catholicism in the Amazon has taken a vindictive turn after indigenous Amazonian fertility statuettes were stolen from a church near St Peter’s Basilica and hurled into the Tiber.
The theft was carried out by ultra-conservative Catholics who regarded the female fertility figures as being pagan.
One conservative Catholic website condemned what it called “the Vatican’s embrace of what appears to be quite literally the idol of a pagan goddess.”
The five statuettes depicted naked, pregnant native women holding their swollen bellies, Mother Earth figures that were brought to Rome from the Amazon for the Vatican summit.
Conservatives are also furious that the Vatican is discussing the possibility of allowing married men in the Amazon to be ordained as a way of addressing the dearth of priests in the region.
They see the move, which is being discussed by bishops at the specially convened Vatican synod, as the thin end of the wedge towards relaxing the Church’s centuries-old requirement that all priests remain unmarried and celibate.
The four wooden statuettes were stolen before dawn on Monday from Santa Maria in Traspontina Church, a few hundred yards from St Peter’s Square, with the perpetrators filming the raid and then uploading it to YouTube.
The footage shows an unidentified man enter the church, grab the wooden statuettes, walk to the nearby Ponte Sant’ Angelo bridge, line them up on the parapet and then sweep them into the river below.
LifeSite News, a conservative Catholic website, carried a statement from activists who said they were behind the theft.
They said they had snatched and dumped the figurines because Catholics were "being attacked by members of our own Church.”
They added: “We do not accept this! We do not longer stay silent! We start to act now!"
LifeSite News launched a petition last week urging the Vatican to remove the statuettes “and any other allegedly pagan symbolism at the synod.”
Before being put on display in the church, the statues had been part of a prayer and tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican gardens, attended by the Pope, to mark the start of the synod. The theft was condemned by the Vatican, with Paolo Ruffini, its head of communications, describing it as “a stupid stunt”.
It was “a gesture that contradicts the spirit of dialogue that should inform everyone,” he said.
Andrea Tornielli, the head of Vatican news services, described it as a “sad episode.”
“In the name of tradition and doctrine, symbols of maternity and the sacredness of life have been thrown away with contempt. These are traditional symbols for indigenous people that represent their connection to Mother Earth,” he said.
Vatican officials contacted the police and an investigation has been launched.
The theft is symptomatic of the acute tensions that surround the synod, which has brought together bishops and indigenous people from nine Amazonian countries.
The synod has discussed the recent huge forest fires in the Amazon as well as threats to native peoples posed by gold prospectors, slash-and-burn farmers and miners.
The three-week summit ends this weekend and bishops will issue a final document of recommendations for Pope Francis to consider. It will be up to him whether to act on the suggestions.