The task of guarding religious sites lies with the country's Orthodox Church, and some say that is part of the problem: The church, which grew in influence after the collapse of communism in 1991, lacks specialized conservators who could care for the churches and their contents. And in many cases, local church authorities block moves to remove valuable works for safe storage elsewhere.
For example, the 19th-century church of St. Nicholas, in the village of Radozda, was targeted three times since 2012 before authorities agreed to remove some of the valuable surviving works. Caretaker Mile Skrceski says 23 icons from the altar screen were taken.
Bishop Timotej, spokesman for the Macedonian Orthodox Church said work is under way to document and register all icons in the west, and hopes that by the end of next year most will be housed in a museum planned to be built in Ohrid.
He added that "dozens" of the most valuable works have already been moved to a secret, safe location.
While it's too late for Lazaropole, some 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of the capital Skopje, church caretaker Gligurovski still holds out hope that the altar screen can regain its plundered icons.
"They preserve the essence of who we actually are," he said.
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