MERSEYSIDE is leading the way in the fight against crime which is blighting the lives of Britain's rgious leaders and congregations.
Now the region's cross-faith crime fighting organisation Churchwatch wants to share its expertise with the nation, by inviting the country's leading fire, police and religious leaders to a major conference in May.
It comes as figures seen by the Daily Post reveal there were on average two assaults or robberies and one arson attack every day involving churches in this region alone in the past three years, with similar statistics replicated across the country.
In recent years there have been some horrific examples of crimes against churchmen. They include the case of Fathers George Robinson, 67, and Peter Dooley, 71, who were held at knifepoint in St Domingo's RC in Huyton while burglars raided the safe.
In another attack the previous November, Fr Peter Kelly, 69, was held prisoner and threatened during a burglary at Holy Angels in Kirkby.
More recently, 70-year-old Fr John Dale's car was set on fire outside St Leo's RC in Whiston on December 1, just days after the church was attacked by arsonists.
In October, vandals trashed and set fire to a 100-year-old Jewish temple in Duke Street, Southport, three times in four days.
Members of the resort's Hebrew Association believed the attacks were racially motivated and hired a private security firm to advise on how to prevent repeat attacks.
The congregation at Edge Lane Hindu temple dwindled from 100 to 30 after devotees were stoned with bricks outside the building soon after September 11.
Police say the problem is exacerbated by insecure churches and temples in inner city areas being made more vulnerable by being vacant on non-worship days.
A culture of not reporting crime among ministers from across the multi-faith spectrum is also believed to have encouraged criminals to think that they are easy targets.
It is hoped the conference in May, the first time police and fire chiefs have been invited to discuss the matter on such a group level with religious leaders, will see the launch of a national prevention strategy.
Organisers Churchwatch, Merseyside's multi-faith crime watchdog, has already introduced a range of innovative pilot schemes in a bid to crack down on esclating attacks.
They include a scheme where vicars were issued with emergency pagers to alert each other about persistent offenders in 1999, a Tae Kwon Do training course in 2000, and an advice video launched in 2001.
This year the group launched a pilot initiative to issue clergy with personal attack alarms, and recruited 21 congregation members who have been trained as part-time security guards.
The Safer Merseyside Partnership is about to launch a cross-faith crime-fighting network to monitor attacks, in conjunction with Churchwatch.
The pilot "ringmaster" scheme will initially see 10 churches issued with a £50 handheld e-mail phone through which they can send and receive information about attackers. It is expected to spread throughout Liverpol, Wirral, Sefton and Cheshire by 2005.
Now Churchwatch, founded by Everton FC chaplain the Rev Harry Ross, vicar at St Luke's CE church Goodison Road, wants to share its expertise with the nation.
A conference in Liverpool's Holiday Inn hotel will see the country's most prominent religious and police figures thrash out ideas.
Mr Ross, who will be keynote speaker at the May 10 and 11 event, told the Daily Post: "This is a major problem across the country not just in Merseyside and what we really need is an opportunity to share ideas and ideally to try to get some sort of strategy rolled out across the country.
"We have already done a lot of good work in Liverpool, but we want to make sure the lines of communication are well and truly open.
"We are very good at communicating between the faiths in Merseyside but we are only just beginning to get our strategy organised after taking advice from both the police and fire authorities" Similar conferences have already been held among religious leaders, one in Liverpool in 2000, and one in Coventry in 2002, but both attracted only around 100 delegates and neither the police or fire services were involved.
Latest police figures show that out of 1,299 places of worship in Merseyside, 236 (18pc) have been targetted by criminals, with 710 offences reported between April 2002 and March 2003.
In addition there have been 96 serious fires in Merseyside churches since 1997, around 80pc of which are believed to have been arson. Last night, police crime reduction Inspector Gary Fairbrother, also Churchwatch liaison officer, said: "Often, by the nature of the work, and their locations, places of worship and the clergy can find themselves vulnerable to crime.
"By working closely with Churchwatch, we are increasingly able to gauge the problems faced by places of worship, and therefore find the best ways to tackle these issues.
"Merseyside Police treats crime against our places of worship very seriously." Mr Fairbrother has held a series of problem-solving workshops with representatives from churches.
He added: "We must keep this in perspective, and remember that 82 pc of churches have never been attacked
"There is always going to be a problem with buildings being unoccupied, but one of the other problems is we need to make sure all crimes are properly reported and we are working with Church-watch to achieve that."