Insurance claims totalling £6m have been submitted in the past few years with the scale of the problem is so widespread that church leaders fear for the future of some places of worship.
Figures obtained by the Yorkshire Post from Ecclesiastical insurance show almost 1,500 insurance claims were made for metal theft from Anglican churches in Yorkshire from 2007 to date, the total cost of which was just over £4.5m.
Methodist churches in Yorkshire have also been hit hard, making just over 1,400 claims since 2007, costing £2.2m, according to Ecclesiastical.
This year has already seen more than 500 insurance claims for metal theft from Anglican and Methodist churches. Nationally, Ecclesiastical has received 8,900 claims for metal theft since 2007, at an estimated cost of £24m.
Churches, some of which have served parishes for centuries, are being picked clean of lead and other metals, leaving water to pour in and damaging the fabric of the historic buildings.
In Haworth, historic home of the Brontes, the parish church and other heritage buildings have been targeted so often that the priest in charge fears that tourism and jobs could be put in jeopardy.
At Dewsbury Minster the damage has been so costly that the insurance company will not cover all the losses, and Canon Kevin Partington says his church to pick up huge bills running into tens of thousands of pounds.
Church leaders have complained that the justice system does not appear to take church metal theft seriously and want tighter laws to clamp down on rogue scrap yards who pay cash without questions.
An online petition to the Home Office calling for a ban on cash-in-hand transactions at scrap metal merchants has attracted nearly 10,000 signatures. Payment by cheque or into a bank account would create an audit trail, deter thieves and help track down lawbreakers.
The Methodist Church is backing the call to tighten legislation.
Ian Serjeant, conservation officer for the Methodist Church in Britain, said: “The theft of metal, stone and other building materials from churches is certainly on the increase. I get several calls a week from churches who have been the victims of this awful crime.
“Whether it’s lead or stone or other types of building material, one thing’s for certain – it’s widespread, it’s on the increase and every community is affected. We are calling on the Government to tighten up legislation on how scrap metal is bought and sold so that it is much harder to sell stolen materials.”
Police in the region denied allegations they do not give lead theft a high priority. South Yorkshire Police says it has its own dedicated metal theft officer.
Detective Superintendent Bill Hotchkiss said: “Metal theft is becoming a growing issue for police, partners, local communities and businesses. Criminals stealing metal and anyone who purchases stolen metals can expect to be arrested and face prosecution.
“The force carries out operations involving increased patrols on major roads and around scrap metal dealers and by stopping vehicles suspected of carrying stolen metal. We recognise the impact this problem has on communities and we are committed to bring these offenders to justice.”
In many parts of Yorkshire, churches have signed up to Worship Watch, which encourages neighbours to report suspicious activity to police.