An alleged thief accused of stealing a valuable icon from Chester Cathedral and replacing it with a novelty Christmas tree decoration was banned from contacting his MP after threatening him, a court has heard.

Vasilijs Apilats denies pinching the 19th century artwork which depicts the Raising of Lazarus from the cathedral's Chapel of St Anselm on August 14, 2014.

The 61-year-old, of Edleston Road in Crewe, claims he was approached by staff who offered the icon for sale, so he handed over £135 for it in good faith.

While he has no previous convictions for dishonesty offences in this country or in his native Latvia, he was made the subject of a restraining order after pleading guilty to harassing Crewe and Nantwich MP Edward Timpson, it emerged on the third day of his trial at Chester Crown Court today (December 2).

Caroline Harris, prosecuting, revealed that the defendant attended Mr Timpson's constituency office and proceeded to threaten him and members of his staff.

But Apilats told the eight men and four women on the jury that he was experiencing housing problems and wanted Mr Timpson's help.

"I was suffering from asthma at the time as a result of living in that house," he said.

"I would not say I was threatening them. I was simply saying that I wanted to have a meeting with Mr Timpson."

Apilats, an orthodox Christian, recalled he travelled to Chester on August 14, 2014, to visit antiques shops and went into the cathedral to look around and pray.

He claimed he was approached by a young man with a 'nice hairstyle and decent clothing' who he believed worked there because he welcomed him and his shirt had a cross-shaped logo on the pocket.

The Christmas tree ornament left in the icon's place

The man allegedly asked Apilats several times if he had seen anything he was interested in, and eventually directed him to the Chapel of St Anselm where he told him he would find an icon up for sale due to its woodworm damage.

Apilats says his offer of £135 was accepted after the man and another colleague cleared it with their manager, and one of the men handed him a receipt which he thinks had £200 written on it, although he could not be sure because he did not have his glasses with him.

The court earlier heard that Chester Cathedral does not have any arrangements in place whereby employees are authorised to sell items, other than in the gift shop.

Apilats said he put the receipt in his rucksack but the writing on it faded significantly when he checked it the following week.

He became suspicious, he said, because the man at the cathedral promised to ring him about other items on sale, but never called.

"I suspected that something went on but it did not cross my mind that it was something silly like theft," he said.

Apilats was arrested in September 2014 after traces of his DNA were found on the easel on which the icon had been displayed.

When he returned home after being released on bail by police, he said he checked his rucksack but could not find the receipt and another document he had left in it.

Asked by Miss Harris to explain why he thinks he was targeted by the first man as per his claim, Apilats – who requires the use of a Russian interpreter – replied: "He probably saw me as a weak link.

"I have been unlucky in life for a while: Unlucky with my landlord and house problems, later it became more complicated as if I was in an unlucky zone.

"My family has fallen apart because of the court proceedings."

He said he purchased the icon to restore it and had no intention to sell it on.

Miss Harris asked him why he did not make any enquiries as to whether or not the men had the authority to sell the icon.

He replied he was in a hurry to get back home and wanted to get the transaction 'wrapped up as quickly as possible'.

The trial continues.