A reliquary containing blood of Blessed Pope John Paul II was stolen from a church in the Abruzzo region in central Italy over the weekend.

Thieves broke into San Pietro della Ienca, a small church in the mountains east of Rome, and took the relic, of which there are very few in the world.

Local police have launched a major investigation, employing sniffer dogs to scour the remote area for clues. The late Pontiff occasionally travelled secretly to the region to ski and prayed in the church.

The Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana called it "a sacrilegious theft that was probably commissioned by someone".

Franca Corrieri told Reuters she had discovered a broken window early on Sunday morning and had called the police. When they entered the small stone church they found the gold reliquary and a crucifix missing.

In 2011, a shrine dedicated to John Paul was erected. His former private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, gave a relic of the Popes blood as a token of the love he had felt for the mountainous area.

It was put in a gold and glass circular case and kept in a niche of the church, near the city of L'Aquila.

Apart from the reliquary and a crucifix, nothing else was stolen from the church.