By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens
A major police operation is under way in southern Greece to try to find a team of burglars who stole one of the country's leading religious icons.
Many miracles have been attributed to the stolen icon
The icon of the Virgin Mary, at the monastery of Elona, symbolised Greek freedom during a 19th-Century campaign to expel the Turkish Ottoman empire.
Police are working on the theory that the thieves hid inside the monastery when it closed to the public.
They are then thought to have been lowered by rope into the sanctuary.
Cut from frame
People living near the cliff-side monastery believe the icon possessed miraculous powers.
Normally a replica of the 700-year-old icon is exhibited at the monastery of Elona which is built into the side of a sheer cliff.
But because this is the week when Orthodox Christians celebrate the life of Christ's mother, the original priceless piece of art was placed on public display.
The thieves may have hidden in the monastery, police believe
They apparently cut the icon from its frame and then abseiled down to the ground.
So important is this particular Panagia, as the Virgin Mary is called here, that the deputy chief of the national police force is leading the inquiry.
Roadblocks have been set up, boats leaving nearby harbours have been searched, and a festival that should have attracted thousands of people has been cancelled so as not to obstruct the police hunt.
Many miracles have been attributed to the icon.
'Curing the sick'
Once, during the Ottoman occupation, it is said to have blinded a group of Turkish soldiers who burst into the monastery on a mission to destroy it.
As a result, the Panagia came to symbolise the hope that Greece would eventually be liberated from the Turkish occupation.
In more recent years, the icon is said to have been responsible for curing the sick and also for ensuring the miraculous escape of drivers crashing on the dangerous mountain roads in the area.
Dimitris Tsigounis, the local mayor, said he hoped the icon had been stolen on behalf of a rich collector because at least it would be safe.
The loss of the Panagiahas has disturbed a profoundly superstitious, rural community.
Gregory Daskas, a real estate agent, said people believe the supernatural powers of the icon will bring tragedy to those who stole it.
But they also fear that its removal will lead to something bad happening to those who used to enjoy its protection.